Under the guns in Lebanon

Linda Diebel October 3 1983

Under the guns in Lebanon

Linda Diebel October 3 1983

Under the guns in Lebanon


Linda Diebel

Finally, the remaining veils of restraint were lifted. Last week in Lebanon, French and U.S. troops serving with the multinational peacekeeping force unleashed the fury of their huge military arsenals and struck back at warring factions which threatened both their lives and the tottering government of President Amin Gemayel. First, the nuclear-powered U.S. cruiser Virginia and the destroyer John Rodgers, lying a mile offshore, uncapped their five-inch guns and poured more than 300 rounds into the hills surrounding embattled Beirut. Then, French Super Etendard fighter-bombers, launched from the aircraft carrier Foch, screamed over the countryside dropping their deadly payload of 550-lb. bombs on emplacements that threatened their ground forces. It was clearly the most aggressive and dangerous escalation so far in a war that threatens to destroy a nation, has already killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and

is moving the superpowers ever closer to a direct confrontation. Declared U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz: “What we are doing in Lebanon is right.” It would be a mistake, added the secretary, to “turn tail and run.”

The U.S. action flowed directly from a warning by Lebanese Army Gen. Ibrahim Tannous. Tannous told U.S. military advisers in Beirut on Sept. 19 that his Eighth Brigade could not defend the strategic Chouf Mountain village of Souk el-Gharb, 14 km southeast of the capital, against a fierce offensive by Syrian-backed Druze militias and Palestinian guerrillas. If Souk el-Gharb fell, the Moslem forces would be able to command an uninterrupted line of fire into the core of Beirut in their war against Gemayel’s Christian-dominated government. In an unprecedented move, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Bernard Rogers ordered U.S. naval bombardment of the rapidly advancing Moslem units, driving them into retreat. Said U.S. Vice-Admiral Edward Martin, commander of the Sixth Fleet: “The naval support missions are defen-

sive actions.” But within 24 hours, Druze phosphorous shells and high-explosive rockets pounded Beirut’s southeastern suburbs, including the home of U.S. Ambassador Robert Dillon.

On Sept. 22, after four days of sporadic U.S. shelling of antigovernment positions in the Chouf, the Druze turned their heavy artillery on French and Italian peacekeeping forces’ positions in Beirut, wounding six French soldiers. At dusk, the French Super Etendards blasted hostile artillery posts behind Syrian lines in the hills along the Beirut-Damascus highway. In Paris, French Defence Minister Charles Hernu reported that the French, like the Americans, had exercised their “right to legitimate self-defence.”

Still, Gemayel’s increasing dependence on massive U.S. and French firepower to sustain his army lines—and his government—heightened fears that the conflict between Christians and Moslems might escalate into a full-scale Middle East war. Since Israel’s withdrawal from its Chouf Mountains positions on Sept. 4, any hope that the war-

weary Lebanese Army alone could repel Druze, Palestinian and Shi’ite forces closing in on Beirut has evaporated. At the same time, Saudi and U.S. mediators failed last week in their attempt to arrange a ceasefire. Washington revealed that the Soviet Union has rejected the administration’s appeal to use its influence to contain Syrian involvement in the Lebanese fighting. For its part, Damascus warned that Syria will attack anyone “by land, sea and air” if its forces in Lebanon are bombarded. As a result, the U.S. Senate voted Friday to cut off the last remnants of aid to Syria.

As the situation deteriorated, Kuwait reported that the Soviets plan to send 52,000 troops to aid Damascus if Israel moves back into the Chouf and threatens Syria. As well, the House of Representatives foreign relations committee approved a vigorously debated compromise resolution providing for the deployment of U.S. troops in Lebanon for another 18 months despite many congressmen’s fears that the involvement may lead to another Vietnam-style catastrophe. Argued one dissenting Democrat, Wisconsin’s David Obey: “This God damn president wants us to get into a war and the American people do not want that. The question is: ‘How do we get the Marines out of Lebanon?’ ” But the majority accepted the administration’s contention that Soviet-backed Syria is frustrating efforts

to end the bloodshed, making a continued U.S. peacekeeping presence essential. Declared President Ronald Reagan: “There is no question [that] Syria is influenced by the Soviet Union.”

Meanwhile, the multinational force itself is suffering casualties at a level that is causing serious domestic concern in the sponsoring countries. Recently, shelling has killed four U.S. marines and wounded 30 (a cluster bomb killed a fifth marine last September). At the same time, 16 French soldiers have been killed and 50 wounded, and 16 Italians have suffered injuries. There are no accurate counts of civilian casualties. But the Lebanese and the International Red Cross said that 115 people died as a result of the fighting in a single week after the Israeli withdrawal—an estimated 25 to 30 per cent of the total. U.S. Marine Commandant Paul Kelley exposed the Americans’ apprehension about U.S. involvement in Lebanon in testimony last week before Congress. Kelley, who served four years in Vietnam, said that the Lebanese peacekeeping mandate has not changed since the Marines “went into Vietnam—I mean Lebanon.”

Still, Shultz contended that a withdrawal of the U.S. marine contingent would simply allow Syria to move in and take effective control of Lebanon. Indeed, Shultz praised the French decision to bomb the Druze positions behind Syrian lines. Earlier in the week French

Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson criticized the United States for opening fire from naval vessels, claiming that the action was not “the best method to achieve a settlement.” The French shifted their position after casualties mounted.

The U.S. administration clearly realizes that Washington’s ability to prop up Gemayel’s Christian minority government against the Moslem majority is severely restricted. As state department spokesman John Hughes pointed out: “We are kind of at the limit of what we will do militarily unless there is a dramatic change. If Gemayel and the

army cannot pull off their own survival with a little help from their friends, we cannot do it for them.”

Those limits seemed to be starkly clear. As a ceasefire effort crumbled, the Marines once more scrambled into their sandbagged bunkers at Beirut International Airport ducking Druzefired shells which were pounding the area at the rate of one every five seconds. The Marines and offshore naval units returned the fire in a pulverizing exchange. As well, Druze militiamen fired on a U.S. marine helicopter on Saturday and the gunship returned the blasts. At the same time, the USS New Jersey—the world’s only active battleship, with its 16-inch guns capable of

hurling 2,700-lb. shells 32 km—steamed into Lebanese waters. It joined 28 other U.S., French, Italian and British warships already patrolling the Beirut coastline—the largest Western armada assembled in the Eastern Mediterranean since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. More than 20,000 troops are aboard the vessels, prepared to support the 5,200man multinational force in a crisis. Like his colleagues, Joe Golebioski, a Marine lieutenant, was reassured by the presence of the battleship. “Listen,” he said, “that sucker fires shells the size of Volkswagens.”

For the U.S. Marines, who are welltrained for conventional warfare, the Chouf Mountain war is an unnerving, unpredictable experience. “I don’t mind dying in Lebanon,” said one disillusioned soldier. “But I don’t want to die because I was a sitting duck.” As a result, the naval support fire and the New Jersey’s arrival have provided a much-needed morale boost. At the airport’s “sandbag city,” Golebioski estimated that one shell from the New Jersey could destroy the road that passes by a Druze militia camp near the small village of Chouefat, east of Beirut, blow away the surrounding trees and kill half the people in the target area. “As we say in the Marines,” he declared, “all we have to do is look up their number and dial it.” But aboard the cruiser Virginia, where the huge letter “E” (for excellence in practice firing in the Caribbean) marks the port side of the forward five-inch gun, the gun crew was less confident. The targeting is computerized and, explained Capt. Joseph King: “We’re told how many rounds to fire and we are given the co-ordinates. I think we are within 50 yards of anything we’re shooting at.”

There was no doubt at the Druze militia command post at Aley overlooking Beirut that U.S. naval guns—later guided by several marines on the ground at Souk el-Gharb—were the instruments that had rebuifed the Druze attack on the strategic village. Said the Druze commander in the area: “During [our] attack the Lebanese Army was fleeing. But when the U.S. Navy got involved with time bombs and phosphorous, they slowed the attack.” He charged that the naval bombardment killed three civilians, including a three-year-old child, and wounded 14 others, and he angrily told U.S. reporters: “Ask your government to take your kids out of here. This is a battle among Lebanese.”

That claim is only partly accurate. Although Moslems and Christians had feuded for more than a century, PLO and Syrian interference exacerbated the conflict during the 1970s. Then, the Israelis invaded in 1982 to drive out the PLO and set up a pro-Israel, Christiandominated state. They allowed the

Christian Phalange militia—headed by Sheik Pierre Gemayel, father to both Amin and Bashir, who was assassinated in Sept., 1982, when he was presidentelect—to set up bases in the Chouf Mountains. Druze militia leader Walid Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party founded by his father, Kamal, has accused Amin Gemayel of being a “butcher” and a “crazy guy.” He also said that Gemayel belongs to the “school of thought of the Sabra and Shatila”—a brutal reference to the Sept., 1982, Phalange-led massacre of 800 Palestinians in two Beirut refugee

camps. Jumblatt’s party, backed by the Sunnis and Shi’ites, is fighting for a revision of the Lebanese constitution to redistribute power among the Moslem majority, which represents 60 per cent of Lebanon’s 3.5 million people. And, unless some compromise granting a measure of control, at least, to the Moslems can be achieved, the bloodletting seems certain to continue. Declared Jumblatt last week: “Either they kill us or we defeat them.”

Despite the massive foreign firepower now assembled against them, the Druze are still determined to carry on the fight. Their clannish nature has enabled the widely dispersed community to rally in support of the embattled forces in the Chouf for the past two weeks. They have arrived, via Damascus, from such disparate

points as Syracuse, Toronto, Buenos Aires, Amman and Jerusalem. Old men in baggy white trousers, T-shirted boys barely in their teens, bakers, truck drivers and bankers—some with military training, most without—have passed through Muktara, the Jumblatt ancestral home and the rallying point for the Druze militia. They collect fatigues, receive their military assignments and, most important, renew their identity in the secretive and proud Islamic sect. “We are not warmongers,” Jihad, a bespectacled young Druze, told Maclean's last week. “We are fighting

for what is ours by right. We want the same thing the Maronite Christians got in 1943—a democratic system that respects us and the Sunnis and Shi’ites. Because they had the numbers back then we gave it to them. Now it is our turn.”

The human price of the battle is high.

At Aley a team of three doctors, one nurse and one nursing assistant operates a former private hospital which treats casualties from behind government lines. Since the Israeli pullout the hospital has treated 230 people, more than half of them civilians. Nineteen have died. Hospital staffers estimate that § about five per cent of 1 Aley’s 100,000 civilians remain, mostly huddling I in basements below g deserted, shell-smashed o streets. The sandbagged t hospital has taken nu-

merous direct artillery hits and its front courtyard, where a wrecked ambulance stands riddled with bullet holes, is in the direct line of sniper fire from across the frontlines to the north. Nurse Marita Gutoski, a 28-year-old American, last week calmly injected a wounded Druze soldier with painkillers as her colleagues cut away another soldier’s ripped uniform and clamped an oxygen mask over his bloodied face. The regular crash of shells punctuated her work. Then, an elderly Christian couple arrived at the hospital after a shell hit their house, showering them with masonry and shrapnel. Aram Shatoyam was unconscious and deathly pale, but his wife, Marie, spoke spiritedly as a hospital staffer pulled tiny fragments of shrapnel from a wound in her head. “I was born in these mountains,” she said simply. “I want to die in my house.”

Gutoski, in blue jeans and a green tartan shirt, smiled when a U.S. reporter asked what went through her mind when she realized that her own navy was shelling her. “Right now I’m going § through some rage and I then some guilt,” she ex5 plained. “It makes me i question if the American £ people are really in| formed about what is go* ing on over here.”

For the embattled Le~~ banese Army the Chouf conflict is bone-wearying. Lebanese Cmdr. John Salloum reported that hundreds of rockets and artillery shells pounded his positions last week, killing three people, one a lieutenant. “There were many wounded,” said the disheartened soldier. “I am tired. My men are tired.” Added a lieutenant-colonel who makes his headquarters in one of Souk el-Gharb’s former resort hotels: “I don’t think we can hold on much longer. We must have the Americans.” Still, morale is surprisingly high, despite the devastating casualties.

U.S. Marine Col. Tim Fintel—chief of the Lebanese Army’s modernization program—is confident that the army he helped to create will win the war. “Amateurs talk about tactics and strategy,” he declared. “Professionals talk about logistics. I have always said that the Lebanese Army will fight for one day longer than the opposition.”

Fintel’s military bravado underlined concerns on Capitol Hill that Gemayel’s survival depends largely upon the awesome strength of U.S. firepower—and the potential loss of more American

¡ lives. Voicing a common fear last week, Wisconsin Republican Toby Roth told Shultz: “I am afraid we are getting into a trap, a real quagmire.” But for Shultz, the matter is straightforward. “If we want the role and influence of a great power,” he declared, “we have to accept the responsibility of a great power.” Another issue raised by U.S. involvement in the Lebanese civil war is whether Reagan has the right to make a decision about the Marines’ role without authorization from Congress. Shultz, for one, said, “The president has no intention of turning over to the

I House his constitutional authority as commander-in-chief.” This week the House and Senate are expected to pass a compromise agreement under which

Reagan would agree to recognize the application of the 1973 War Powers Reso-

Ilution in exchange for congressional authority to keep the Marines deployed in Lebanon another 18 months. That legislation, adopted a decade ago after most marines had left Vietnam, says that the president must withdraw U.S. troops from hostile situations unless Congress specifically authorizes him to keep them there. Said dissident Ohio Democrat John Seiberling: “We see marines being killed in Lebanon and the battle escalating every day, and all we get so far is a backroom deal.” There is also a loophole in the agreement that allows the president to take “protective mea-

sures” to ensure the safety of the multinational peacekeeping force. Indeed, Shultz, in testimony last week before both the House foreign affairs committee and the Senate foreign relations committee, refused to rule out the possibility of U.S. naval planes becoming involved in tactical air strikes in the Chouf Mountains. Snapped Senate Minority Leader Robert Byrd: “[It is] a hole we could run Amtrak through.”

Meanwhile, Israel is still adhering to a nonintervention policy and it is reluctant to assume a more active role because 518 Israeli soldiers died and 3,000 were wounded after the June, 1982, invasion. But the government has developed a somewhat more militant attitude in the past two weeks. A senior Israeli government official said that

fighting between the Lebanese Army and the Syrian-backed Druze and Palestinians poses a grave threat to Israeli interests. “We wanted a strong Lebanese government and the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon,” he explained. “What we are now seeing is the erosion of government authority and the entry of more foreign forces into the conflict.”

Whatever interests are being served, they are clearly not those of Lebanese civilians. More than 150,000 people of every sect and loyalty, rich and poor, have fled the Chouf Mountains in cars, trucks and boats to escape the conflict. Those who can afford the high cost of a

ticket crowd Beirut harbor to catch one of the ferries leaving daily for Cyprus; thousands of those who are less fortunate stay in Beirut, living with relatives, crowding into cheap hotels or camping in lobbies and stairwells. The Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross says it is caring for 105,000 refugees and last week it appealed for $6 million to look after them for another three months. It is impossible to estimate the exact numbers of people stranded in the Chouf, but ICRC spokesman Lawrence Speziales said that 25,000 Christians are trapped in the village of Deir al-Qamar alone, along with the local population of 5,000 and Druze fighters who control the surrounding area. Red Cross medical teams last week treated 16 cases of typhoid among 29,000 Sunni Moslems sheltering in the tiny village of Shihim, in the Chouf. As a British banker in Beirut told Maclean's correspondent Wright, “Last year they were killing people; this year they are killing hope.”

At the same time, refugees from the Chouf related dozens of cases of atrocities. A 55-year-old Christian widow, Mary Najeim, for one, said that Druze soldiers entered the home of an elderly Christian couple in Masser el-Shuf and shot them and their young grandson. A second grandson ran to the home of the local priest Rev. Antoine Aboud, where Najeim and her 20-year-old daughter Leila were fixing lunch. They killed Father Aboud instantly and cut down Leila and the boy when they tried to escape. Najeim survived and said she will not forget the names of the men who killed her family. And Druze spiritual leader Sheik Mohammed abu Shaqra showed journalists a huge steel fork which he said Phalangists had used to gouge out the eyes of their Druze prisoners. Commented one Druze soldier: “This is a civil war. The attitude on both sides often is that if women or children are in the middle of a battle, they are someplace they don’t belong.”

In the extraordinary bitterness of the Chouf Mountain war, even the word “massacre” has become devalued as both sides rush to display the grisly evidence. The horror of each atrocity fortifies the deep and violent bitterness between Lebanon’s Christians and Moslems. Clearly, the entry of foreign troops into the nation will never erase the profound internal problems of its embattled people. Indeed, as last week’s events showed, it may even harden that historical hatred.

Robin Wright


Michael Posner

Linda McQuaig