For more than two years, Israel has wisely kept a low profile as civil war has engulfed its northern neighbor Syria. But this past week, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent his air force to strike targets in and around Damascus, significantly raising Israel’s profile in the conflict. As Israel and America consider their next steps in that unstable environment, it would be wise to remember how Israel gradually got engaged in the Lebanese civil war and found nothing but frustration and failure as its well intentioned policies yielded unanticipated effects and unintended consequences.
Syria and Lebanon share the same bitterly sectarian politics. Both are the creations of French imperialism. And both were misruled too long by minority sects that spawned vicious and violent civil wars. Israel began interfering in Lebanon’s internal affairs in the 1960s when the Palestinian movement built its headquarters there. Starting with an air attack on Beirut International Airport in 1968, successive Israeli governments got more and more sucked into the swamp of Lebanese politics and warlord conflict.
In 1978, Israeli built a proxy army in south Lebanon and created a security zone to defend northern Israel from terror attacks. Similarly, there is talk now in Israel of a security zone in Syria and perhaps a Druze collaboration partner. In 1982, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon invaded Lebanon to create a “new Middle East” that would destroy the PLO and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria. Instead, Operation Peace for Galilee led to the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the Marine barracks bombing, two attacks on the American embassy, an eighteen-year-long insurgency in south Lebanon, the awakening of Lebanese Shia militancy and creation of Hezbollah.
Peace for Galilee was followed by Operation Accountability in 1993, Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1995 and finally Israel’s complete and unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000. Israel’s Lebanese allies were abandoned to their fate. But the war continued across the border. In 2006, a half million Israelis were displaced from their homes during the thirty-four-day war with Hezbollah. Today Hezbollah has more weapons than ever before.
The objective of this kind of [safe zones] project may be described as fundamentally humanitarian, but the reality is that any number of parties, starting with the Assad regime and the Islamic State, are going to see it as a threat, and that’s going to make it a target instead of a safe place.