The "Safra" operation and the battle of Zahle.
The years 1978 and 1980 where critical turning points in Lebanon’s war history. The two highlights were the “100-Day War” and the Battle of Zahleh. During the “100-Day War”, the Safra operation against the Tigers had not yet taken place. The Christians were united, and the Syrians were unchained. Sheikh Bashir Gemayel was arrested by the Syrian troops in Ashrafieh where he was dragged to their command in Rizk Tower. Following his arrest, the Unified Command of the Lebanese Forces met and strongly condemned what was called the “Syrian aggression against Sheikh Bashir, The Leader”.
On the evening of July 1, 1978, Syrian guns opened up and crushed Ayn Remaneh, Jdeideh, Furn El Shebbak, Tahwita, Hazmieh Road, claiming numerous innocent victims.
On July 2, 1978, East Beirut was ablaze. Before nightfall, there were more than 60 civilians killed and over 300 wounded. The Christian Command issued a statement that all Syrian infiltration attempts were foiled, that we must remain confident in our capacity, and above all, resist and be true to our sacred cause. Resist! We had no alternative, we were boosted and all worked up. We could fight against the World if necessary.
The Syrian attack occurred in the strained relations between Syria and the Lebanese Fron. The one exception was President Soleiman Franjieh who had chosen the Syrian camp where it was extremely tense. Syria was the enemy. The pressure was on President Elias Sarkis against impossible conditions to hammer the Christians. Hafez Assad was pressing for an official cover for his army to be deployed under the screen of the so called “Arab Deterrent Forces”. The cover was for everywhere on the territory without exception and without impediment. Even the Amid Raymond Edde, through his straight forward manner, declared that the Syrians were using the Ehden massacre to annihilate the Kataeb party in order to occupy Lebanon down to the Litani river. That occupation would definitely lead to the partition of Lebanon.
By July 6, 1978, Beirut was burning. President Sarkis decided to resign. Every Lebanese Christian was flabbergasted. The resignation was an innovation in Lebanon’s political history, a somersault. The Kataeb Party’s Radio Voice of Lebanon moved by sea to the heart of the Kessrouan in Al Loueizeh Monastery to keep on broadcasting. Sheikh Bashir inaugurated his own Radio Station “Radio Free Lebanon” in a far-off mountain spot “Azra” with Sejaan Azzi as director, to keep at a distance with the Kataeb.
President Camille Chamoun maintained the fire outside, and down deep inside of everyone of us ready to fight to the last man after President Chamoun announced that Syria was determined to do away with all the Christians. Later in one of President Chamoun’s addresses to the Christian combatants he stated: “Syria has now launched against you the war of extermination. I am pressing you today to join forces and struggle for freedom and dignity. As to Sheikh Pierre Gemayel, he has never been harder. Syria is trying to make you kneel down, but we’ll never kneel”.
President Sarkis, under United States pressure, withdrew his resignation to the great displeasure of the Syrians. The morale of the resisting Christian combatant’s and the people had never been higher. Syrian pressure was maintained for hundreds of days. Heavy random shelling resulted in the eastern regions being cut off becoming besieged sectors. Sniping, in short terror was at its zenith.
Syrian soldiers even managed to break through our Ashrafieh lines and reached Berty’s Drugstore. That is where Michel Berty, a hero we all remember and honor, was killed, fighting for liberty to his last breath. For the first time, the “boys” managed to kick off the Syrian troops, kill most of the assailants and recover every lost position previously taken. Fierce fighting also broke out between soldiers at the Al Batone building, the Al Murr tower and the Saifi front. Again the Syrians lost many of their men and retreated.
The Syrians also destroyed the Karantina Operations Room and Elie Hobeika decided we should move to the Electricity Board premises. We were short of ammunitions and the people who were trapped, short of food. That is when Mony Arab gave us permission to break open all supermarkets and food stores. I led the mission in an armored car and the boys followed in the Yellow Electricity Board jeeps and vans. We loaded the vehicles with the looted stuff and along the way distributed the food to the starving soldiers. That is when I saw that the S.K.S barracks had been pulled down to the ground.
Shortly after President Chamoun’s stirring and unequivocal message, one of the Christian Patriarchy, President Soleiman Franjieh went to Damascus and laid the Christians low by announcing that if it were not for Syria, Lebanon would have been lost!
President Franjieh thus triggered the Syrian war against the isolated Christians of the North, and Mount Lebanon. Mount Lebanon was strong with the unconditional support of a Christian Patriarch who betrayed his own community and decided to get even with the rest of the Christians indiscriminately and do away with all Christians and Lebanon.
It was not until November, 1978, that the world woke up to the seriousness of the situation. The United Nations Security Council finally imposed a cease fire between the Lebanese Forces and the Syrian Army. When the cease fire went into effect this time, the Lebanese realized the ferocity of the Syrians who, unable to wipe us out, handwiped out our city and all of its public services. The strongest and most lethal blizzard could not have done what the Syrians had done in a hundred days of blind and hateful bombing.
Although calm returned, and the Saudi troops replaced the Syrians, it was portent of the tragedy of Zahleh. It was between the “100-Day War” and the “Battle of Zahlei” that Sheikh Bashir Gemayel, strong with his new political victory, and having “kicked out” the Syrians, replaced in Eastern regions by Saudi soldiers, decided to “unify the gun”.
The Tigers were annihilated and Dany Chamoun, their chief, turned to Damascus, as if under some sort of spell called Syria. Syria that picks up the blacksheep within the Christian ranks, puts them to the test and then uses them against their kin and next of kin. The Christian leaders always fall into the trap to get their own selfish revenge, uncaring about the consequences on the Christian people at large.
After the “Red Light operation”, Dany Chamoun and his men, Elias Hanash, Elie Charbel, and Al Zaghloul moved over to West Beirut where they struck an alliance with the Syrian Command and the Palestinians. They coordinated with Fath Security and the Delegates Bureau. Their objective was to reestablish their good name and make their way back into some Christian areas which they considered out of reach of the Kataeb Party and the Lebanese Forces. They set up their command in Shtaura Jdita in the Bekaa, tearing off another territory from the basic Christian command which was Franjieh in the North, Chamoun in the Bekaa.
After being the first, truest and most convincing Israeli ally, Dany Chamoun was coldly turning Syrian and Palestinian, throwing himself into the arms of Israel’s sworn enemies. The new pro-Syrian Christian command included among others, Khalil Hrawi, Joseph Abou Yunes, Michel Felfleh, and other leading citizens such as Elias Hrawi, and Joseph Skaff who placed their business with the Syrians above any other consideration.
The military side was supervised by Ahmad Ismail, Chief of the Palestinian Security and Delegates Bureau. Their obsession of striking and gaining control of the Christian Bekaa town of Zahleh, was becoming a reality. Militarily weak, and cut off from the Christian fiefdom (East Beirut, Kessrouan, Northern Matn and Byblos), Zahleh was almost handed over to them on a golden plate.
To shake the foundation of the Kataeb Party, the Syrians, Palestinians and their newly acquired Christian ally, Dany Chamoun planned and assassinated the Kataeb party military commissioner Fawzi Khazzika on the road to Taanayel. The terrorist plan unrolled. A new commissioner was appointed. George Saadeh whom Joseph Hajj, Abu Halka, met in Beirut and warned him against a planned attempt on his life. He would not listen. A week later he was shot down. The incident was ominous and fraught with consequences.
The atmosphere was overcast. The Christians’ aversion for foreign armed elements moving freely in the city under the cover of a local Christian Party, Dany Chamoun’s party grew.
Bashir Gemayel and the Kataeb Party could not take it lying down. Not content with just a display of force, Hanash and his men raided the houses of Kataeb Party members or allies in the city. The outburst of inter Christian clashes was imminent.
It happened in 1980. The Tigers were supported by the Palestinians and their leftist Lebanese allies. Although the Christians had numerous casualties, the Tigers were enilated. In their rage and incited by the Syrians, the Palestinians opened up heavy artillery fire on all the sectors of Zahleh whether residential or military. Despite their efforts, the battle was lost. The Tigers were disarmed, the Kataeb Party and Lebanese Forces regained control of the 150,000 Christian that inhabited the City of Zahleh.
The Syrians would not admit their indirect defeat. They claimed the Bekaa was theirs just as the Israelis had claimed the South. The big storm was brewing.
On December 19, 1980, all out fighting exploded in Zahleh between the Syrian troops and the Lebanese Forces. The Lebanese Forces were supported by the Zahleh inhabitants. The Syrians had prepared for such an outbreak by bringing in reinforcements by helicopters and preparing for continued fighting. They had to spark the ignition. They sent a military truck with five Syrian soldiers on a patrol mission along the Boulevard to the Zahleh square. This scheme strangely resembled the Ayn Remaneh event on April 13, 1975. The five Syrian soliders and the Unit Commander Major Idriss were attacked and killed. Two Syrian helicopters were hit. Fighting erupted via Palestinian and leftist allies. Following fierce fighting, a cease fire was soon imposed, but the hatred remained and it was building.
The Syrian scheme was working. They had begun the fighting which allowed the military leaders to launch a general assault on the city four months later. On April 2, 1980, Zahleh was shut in, heavily besieged and massively bombed. The attack was later to become known as “The Bloody Day” or “Doomsday”.The attack was the first day the Christians were exulted. The Syrians, in trying to seize the hills above the mountain-flanked city, lost three armored vehicles and more than 20 soldiers.
The Syrians retaliated with an artillery barrage in East Beirut with their usual brutality that caught residents by surprise, inflicted heavy casualties, and emptied the Christian part of the capital for the next few months. The Lebanese Front and Lebanese Forces sent reinforcements through a strategically located steep mountain road. The road was under construction by the Lebanese Forces to transverse the Lebanon mountain range linking the Christian heartland to Zahleh.
By then, sharp differences had erupted within the Christian camp in Zahleh. There was real strains and stresses among the junior warlords. Fuad Abou Nader and Boutros Khawand were dispatched to settle matters. Bashir sent the commander of the Lebanese Forces armored battalion, Joseph Elias, a tough guy from Zahleh. He failed in his mission to reconcile the Lebanese forces commanders and was replaced by Jo Eddeh.
However, the combatants were not only at odds, but unprepared for a big showdown. Bashir was determined to go on whatever the cost, strong with Israeli logistic support, and internal election situation.
Lebanese Forces troops gathered in Ouyoun El Simman and moved over to Zahleh. Weather conditions were lousy and heavy snow covered the mountain peaks where the boys were expected to cross.
The inhabitants of Zaleh were utterly demoralized. Fierce battles broke out resulting in numerous casualties. Then Samir Geagea arrived. He had been preceded by Elias Zayek assisted by a number of Bekaai combatants such as Tito and Albert. When the Doctor showed up, the Lebanese Forces command headquarters had been wrecked. The officers were in complete disarray and disagreed on many points. Geagea decided to immediately return to Beirut. Geagea’s report stated that the City of Zaleh was a total military lost. Relations between the leadership of the Lebanese Forces junior warlords was desperate. Joseph el Hage alias Abou Halka led him to Wadi Al Arayesh in the middle of the night with about 40 young men who decided to give up, disgusted by the prevailing conditions. The next 10 days were more than hell. Fighting was in full swing. The Syrians, by their heavy-handed dealings with the Christians, were moved by two objectives: first, to break down the Christian Lebanese forces and the Christians; and, second, to gain command of the strategic Beirut-Damascus Road.
The Christian chieftains appealed to the world for assistance. The statements made by United States State Secretary Haig spoke unequivocally of “the Syrian army of occupation brutality.” Bashir sought to provoke an international crisis to force the Syrians out. All Christian media continued to appeal to the world to rescue the beleaguered Christians facing genocide. The Syrians continued to wantonly kill men women and children, and the world began to respond. Zahleh had become the Symbol of Christian resistance and, in fact, sacrificed itself for all the Christians of Lebanon.
The outcome of this battle would determine the future of all the Lebanese Christians. On April 28, 1981, Israeli airforce planes, American built F-15s and F-16s shot down two Syrian army helicopters over the Bekaa valley north of the Beirut-Damascus road. The next day, Hafez Assad of Syria moved in. His army installed three radar fit batteries of Soviet-made ground-to-air missiles alongside the Beirut Damascus road. Begin warmed the Syrians to remove the missiles or Israeli fighter bombers would do the job. Israel Hgad finally moved in as the Christians had hoped and prayed for.
We were actually exulting. Lebanon was now at the very center of an international crisis. Philip Habib, a man of Lebanese extraction, was dispatched by the Reagan administration to untangle the mess. By then, the United States was siding up with Bashir Gemayel and embraced him formally. He was now the strongest single force in Lebanon and declared after his first tete a tete with Habib that the new American understanding of the Christian “Cause” constituted the greatest victory of the struggle.
The siege of Zahleh was lifted on June 30, 1981, and our men were bussed out of the Bekaa, decorated and feted in a ceremony and the Lebanese Forces Headquarters and covered by local and foreign media. A stupendous political victory was won.
A short while later, the Saudis were pressed by the Reagan Administration to buy off the belligerents. They paid Syria millions of United States dollars according to confirmed rumors, and Sheikh Bashir was invited on a 24-hour trip to Ryadh where he was told that he had to acquiesce to the Syrian formal demands in writing to sever all ties with Israel. Which he did. The Christian warlord was consecrated. The way was wide open for him to leap to the top job in Lebanon.