How Come Syria Controls Lebanon?

Why the neighbors are calling the shots.

Accounts of the Monday assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri have invariably included some version of the phrase, “Syria virtually controls Lebanon.” How did the Syrians get control of Lebanon?

The Lebanese president invited them. In 1976, a little more than a year after the start of Lebanon’s bloody civil war, the Maronite Christian president, Suleiman Franjieh *, requested military aid from Syria. The war was a struggle among religious and ethnic groups in Lebanon—the ruling Christians wanted to maintain power over the Sunnis, Shiites, and Druzes, and to evict the large population of Palestinians that had just been expelled from Jordan. Syrian troops entered the country on June 1, 1976, and beat back both Palestinian forces and Soviet-backed Muslim militias. A few months later, the Arab League attempted to enforce a cease-fire by creating the Arab Deterrent Force, a Syrian-dominated military presence in Lebanon.


Syria’s direct influence declined over the next 10 years of civil war, especially as Israel was drawn into the conflict when Palestinians began to attack it from southern Lebanon. By 1978, the Christian factions had split from the Syrians and forced them out of East Beirut, and in 1982, the Israelis pushed the Syrians into the northern part of the country. There they worked with Shiite Muslims to promote resistance to the Israeli occupation. When Israel began to withdraw, the Syrians regained some direct control. In 1987, they re-entered Muslim West Beirut. (The Israelis finally left southern Lebanon in 2000.)

The Lebanese civil war began to draw to a close with the Taif Agreement in 1989, which provided for a joint government of Christians and Muslims. The agreement also provided for a “special relationship” between Syria and Lebanon and enumerated their “joint fraternal interests.” The Syrians pledged a partial withdrawal from Lebanon in two years, but the possibility of an extended occupation was not ruled out. The Syrian military ended the violence in 1990.


Today, Syria still has 14,000 troops in the country and exerts control over the government mostly through its intelligence services. It has both economic and security interests in the region, as well as a historical claim to the area. The land was under Ottoman control until World War I and then was part of independent Syria for two years. In 1920, Greater Syria (including what is now Lebanon) fell under French control. Lebanon, which the French had designated as a separate Christian state, gained independence in 1943. The last French soldiers left Syria on Evacuation Day in April 1946.

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Explainer thanks Tony Sullivan of the University of Michigan, Robert Rabil of Florida Atlantic University, and William Rugh of the Middle East Institute.

Correction, Feb. 16: This piece originally stated that Ilyas Sarkis was the Lebanese
president who requested military aid from Syria. In fact, it was Suleiman Franjieh who did so. (Return to the corrected sentence.)