Syrian Terrorism in Lebanon

[Editor’s Note: One of the referenced authors uses an alternate Latin spelling of the more commonly-used Arabic term Hezbollah. Hizballah is thus used as the spelling throughout the document for consistency.]

Is Syria running Lebanon? Syria’s objectives in Lebanon have consistently been to accomplish one central goal: controlling the Palestinian cause so that it can be taken advantage of domestically and internationally. It is this reasoning that Syria has used since the 1960’s to support their anti-Israeli foreign policy approach; it is also why Syria to this day walks a very fine line as it concerns terrorism; not allowing extremism inside its political borders, but sponsoring fanatics in Lebanon as a means of flexing its foreign policy muscles against Israel and the Jewish nation’s perceived Zionist objectives.

Yet this explanation does not tell the whole story of Syria’s involvement in Lebanon. Indeed, Syria has maintained a presence in Lebanon since the 1980s has not always projected strong influence in Lebanon. As one would expect, the majority of the reason for this “influence” in Lebanon is to keep the fiction that Syria is not sponsoring terrorism. Author El-Hokayem backs up this assertion when he states that in the 1980s and 1990s “Syria went to great lengths to avoid irrevocably alienating Western powers by posing as a moderating force and cultivating deniability, especially during the hostage crisis” and “What Syria would not do, Hizballah and others did” (el-Hokayem, p.37). This was because Hafiz al-Asad “had few avenues for exerting pressure” against Israel; realizing this he “he quickly grasped the value of relying on Hizballah as an armed group to improve Damascus’ negotiating position vis-à-vis Israel” (el-Hokayem, p.37).

El-Hokayem elaborates that while Syria had Lebanon “firmly anchored in the Syrian orbit” during the 1990s it was used to serve as “Damascus’ strategic depth”. This is because “It guaranteed good-faith negotiations over the Golan Heights from a position of relative strength”. In this way Lebanon served as a Syrian asset “augmenting pressure on Israel” (el-Hokayem, p.38).  Yet, how does Syria’s Lebanon policy relate to Iran’s objectives?

Iranian objectives for Lebanon significantly shifted as time passed on from the 1980s to today. Originally, all of Tehran’s intentions as they concerned Lebanon were firmly embedded in Hizballah. In the 1980s, Iran viewed Hizballah as a means of “exporting its revolution” (el-Hokayem, p.36) to Lebanon; in effect, the goal was for Hizballah to become the revolutionary government of Lebanon. Syria has also been a long-standing advocate for Hizballah. Though Syria during Hafiz al-Asad’s regime “demonstrated calculated caution, being careful not to meet personally or in public with Nasrallah and relying heavily on his intelligence apparatus to run Hizballah” (el-Hokayem, p.40), whereas today in Bashar al-Asad’s regime it is “a close personal relationship” (el-Hokayem, p.42). The fact that Syria’s foreign policy goals in Lebanon have included the use of Hizballah have clear implications for the conduct of others’ foreign policy in the area.

As the relationship currently stands, “Syria allows Hizballah to enjoy sanctuary in Lebanon, where it also allows Iran to arm and train Hizballah’s members” (Byman, p.104). Syria and Iran’s diplomatic relationship historically has been connected to their support for Hizbollah; this is demonstrated by Iran’s aiding and arming of Hizballah, which also explains Syria turning a blind eye to arms for Hizballah being transported through Syrian territory.

[Editor’s Note to readers: As protests mount in Syria, should we be surprised at the United States’ hostile stance toward the current Syrian regime? How will this affect Turkey’s recent bid for influence in the region? What other problems does this issue present for Arab and Western voters and policymakers?]



1.       El-Hokayem, E. (2007). Hizballah and Syria: Outgrowing the Proxy Relationship. The Washington Quarterly

2.       Byman, D. (2005). Confronting Syrian backed Terrorism. The Washington Quarterly

About jakeeyremdy

A recent graduate from Norwich University with his Master of Arts in Diplomacy, Jake discusses a wide variety of topics centrally related to international diplomacy, international law, international terrorism studies, and other such topics

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