Mountain War (Lebanon)
|Part of the Lebanese Civil War|
|Commanders and leaders|
| Walid Jumblatt
Emir Majid Arslan
Bassam Abu Sharif
| Fouad Abou Nader
|Casualties and losses|
|1,600 dead and 2,000 injured|
The Mountain War (Arabic: حرب الجبل| Harb al-Jabal) or War of the Mountain, also known as 'Guerre de la Montagne' in French, was a subconflict between the 1982–83 phase of the Lebanese Civil War and the 1984–89 phase of the Lebanese Civil War, which occurred at the mountainous Chouf District located south-east of the Lebanese Capital Beirut.
- 1 Background
- 2 The Mountain War
- 2.1 September 1983
- 2.2 October 1983
- 2.3 November 1983
- 2.4 December 1983
- 2.5 January 1984
- 2.6 February 1984
- 2.7 March 1984
- 3 Consequences
- 4 See also
- 5 Notes
- 6 References
- 7 External links
In the wake of the June 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the main Christian Maronite ally of Israel, the Lebanese Forces (LF) militia of the Kataeb Party commanded by Bashir Gemayel sought to expand its area of influence in Lebanon. The LF tried to take advantage of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) advances to begin deploying troops in areas where they had not been present before. Such territorial expansion was focused on regions known to harbor a large Christian rural population, such as the mountainous Chouf District, located south-east of Beirut. Following the assassination of their leader—and President-elect of Lebanon on August 23—Bashir Gemayel in September 1982, the LF command council decided late that month to enter the Chouf. The head of LF intelligence, Elie Hobeika, voiced its opposition to the entry, but was overruled by its fellow senior commanders of the council. With the tacit backing of the IDF, Lebanese Forces’ units under the command of Samir Geagea (appointed Commander of LF forces in the Chouf-Aley sector of Mount Lebanon in January 1983) moved into the Christian-populated areas of the western Chouf. By early 1983, the Lebanese Forces’ managed to establish garrisons at a number of key towns in the Chouf, namely Aley, Deir el-Qamar, Souk El Gharb, Kfar Matta, Bhamdoun, and Kabr Chmoun among others. However, this brought them into confrontation with the local Druze community, who viewed the LF as intruders on their territory.
The Maronites and the Druze were long-standing enemies since the 1860s and old enmities were rearoused when Geagea’s Maronite troops tried to pay old historic debts by imposing their authority on the Chouf by force. Some 145 Druze civilians were reportedly killed by the Lebanese Forces at Kfar Matta and sporadic fighting soon broke out between the LF and the main Druze militia of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP).
The re-organization of the Lebanese Army
The new Lebanese President Amin Gemayel – brother of the late Bashir, elected as its successor in September 21 – requested that a U.S., French and Italian (soon joined by a small British contingent) peacekeeping Multinational Force (MNF) should be deployed in and around the Beirut area to maintain order. He also proceeded to re-organize and re-equip the depleted Lebanese Army with the help of the United States and France, whose MNF contingents (U.S. Marines and French Foreign Legion Paratroopers) began training Lebanese recruits, followed by the end of the year of the arrival of arms shipments. Such partisan attitude however, eroded the neutrality of the MNF at the eyes of the Lebanese Muslims, since the regular Army – and in fact, the whole of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) – was not a neutral national defense force that would protect the interests of all factions. Indeed, the LAF was almost wholly controlled by the Christians. In early October 1982, after regaining control of West Beirut the Lebanese Army Commander-in-Chief Major-General Ibrahim Tannous turned its attention to the Chouf Mountains and on October 18, its troops began to reassert their presence in the region. However, they were unable to stop the ongoing Christian-Druze clashes, mostly due to the military Israeli presence in the area, which tended to restrict Lebanese government’ forces activity.
In November, the fighting in the Chouf spread into the south-western suburbs of Beirut and friction in the Lebanese Capital increased after December 1, when the Druze PSP leader Walid Jumblatt was injured in an assassination attempt by a car-bomb explosion. On December 20 fighting broke out again between the Christian LF and the Druze PSP militias at the town of Aley which rumbled on until February 7, 1983, when the Druze overrun the town and drove out the Christian garrison.
On April 18 a suicide bomber drove a delivery van packed with explosives into the lobby of the U.S. Embassy at West Beirut, killing 63 people – among the dead were Robert C. Ames, a senior Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst, and six personnel from the CIA station in Lebanon. Responsibility was claimed by the previously unknown Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO), a Lebanese Shiite terrorist group supported by Iran and based near Baalbek in the Syrian-controlled Beqaa valley. This attack inaugurated the saga of suicide car- and truck-bombings in Lebanon.
The May 17 Agreement
After six months of tedious U.S.-mediated secret negotiations, representatives of the Lebanese, Israeli, and American governments signed a withdrawal agreement on May 17, 1983, which became known as the ‘May 17 Agreement’, that provided for the evacuation of all foreign armed forces from Lebanon. However, implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement depended entirely upon the cooperation of Syria who, incensed for being neither invited to the negotiations nor consulted prior to the signature of the agreement, rejected it by refusing to withdraw its 30,000 troops stationed in Lebanon. Many Lebanese, both Christian and Muslim, were not in favour of the American-sponsored agreement either, which included severe security terms imposed by the Israelis and practically treated Lebanon as a defeated country. Although the Agreement was approved by the Lebanese Parliament, President Amin Gemayel refused to ratify it, a decision that irritated the Israeli Prime-Minister Menahem Begin. Lebanese Muslims also felt both threatened and marginalized when their President, confident of U.S. political and military support, avoided implementing the much-needed political reforms to which the Muslim Political Parties and militias felt entitled.
As a result, internal political and armed opposition to the weak Gemayel administration grew intensively throughout the country. On May 22, a number of clashes occurred in the Chouf Mountains, as the Druze PSP militias moved to expel the Lebanese Forces from their remaining positions in the area. Despite the heavy presence of IDF units in the region, the Israelis had little interest at getting involved in Lebanese inter-sectarian strife, and made no attempt to intervene in the behalf of their LF allies.
During the summer of 1983 the situation in Lebanon degenerated into a vicious power struggle between Lebanese rival factions, with the MNF caught in the middle. Both the Israelis and Syrians withdrew to more defensive positions and tried to outmaneuvre each other by playing their local proxies, with mixed results. At the same time, the Lebanese central government was planning to re-impose its authority over the Chouf District, and on 9–10 July, Army regulars occupied an observation post recently abandoned by the IDF, located in the hills to the east of Beirut. President Gemayel and General Tannous wanted to step up the full deployment of combat units of the reformed Lebanese Army to the area, ostensibly to act as a buffer between the LF and the PSP. This was objected by the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who accused the Army of serving primarily the Kataeb interests’, and began to re-organize and re-arm his PSP militia with Syrian material help. Oddly enough, the Israelis did not react to the Druze military built-up in the Chouf.
Clashes with the Druze in the Chouf
The first clash between the Druze PSP and the Army occurred on July 14, when an Army detachment accompanying an IDF patrol was ambushed by Druze guerrillas. Fourteen Lebanese regular soldiers and two Druze militiamen were killed in the attack, and in riposte the artillery units of Jumblatt’s PSP shelled on 18th, 20th and 23rd the Christian-held neighbourhoods of East Beirut (in which over 30 people were killed and 600 injured, mostly civilians) and the U.S. Marines’ positions at Beirut International Airport in Khalde. Although President Gemayel accused Syria of being behind the Druze shelling and threatened to respond accordingly, the artillery duels between government forces and Druze militias continued sporadically until a cease-fire came to effect on late August.
Clashes with Amal in Beirut
As these events were unfolding in the Chouf, tensions continued to mount at Muslim-populated West Beirut. They finally exploded on mid-August when a general strike called on the 15th quickly escalated into open warfare, which pitted the Shia Muslim Amal Movement militia led by Nabih Berri against the Lebanese Army. Although Amal had managed to seize control of much of West Beirut after two weeks of street-fighting, hostilities were resumed in August 28 near MNF positions in the southern edge of the Lebanese Capital which caused several UN casualties. The response was not long in coming, and two days later, Lebanese Army troops assisted by MNF detachments backed by artillery and USMC Bell AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships, made successful counterattacks and regained control of the Muslim quarters.
The Israelis withdraw from the Chouf
To further aggrieve matters, the Israelis during that same month withdrew unilaterally from the Chouf to new positions further south along the Awali River, allowing the Lebanese Army to resume control over the area. This unexpected move effectively removed the buffer made by the IDF between the Druze and Christian militias. Some international analysts have argued that the Israelis had deliberately provoked the conflict so that their Christian allies could establish themselves in the area. New recordings of a phone call between the U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin released by the New York Post in November 2014 revealed a request made by Reagan to the Israeli prime minister to delay the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Chouf mountains. In any event, the cease-fire in the Chouf barely held for a week, and triggered another round of brutal fighting which caused Walid Jumblatt to declare on September 1 that the Druze community of Lebanon was now formally at war with the Christian-dominated Gemayel government in East Beirut. The ‘Mountain War’ had begun.
The Mountain War
On September 3, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) activated the first part of a phased withdrawal plan codenamed Operation Millstone, by quickly pulling out its troops from their positions on the southern approaches of Beirut and from a section of the Beirut-Damascus Highway, and within twenty-four hours Israeli units had completed its redeployment south of the Awali River line. The Lebanese Army hurried south to occupy Khalde and the road accesses to the adjoining International Airport, but run with difficulties near Aley, where heavy fighting between the Druze militias and the Lebanese Forces still rumbled.
By this stage, Jumblatt’s 17,000-strong PSP militia was now part of a military coalition that gathered 300 Druze fighters sent by its Druze rival Majeed Arslan and head of the powerful Yazbaki clan, 2,000 Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) militiamen under Inaam Raad, 3,000 Nasserite fighters of the Al-Murabitoun led by the Sunni Muslim Ibrahim Kulaylat and some 5,000 Popular Guards’ militiamen of the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP) under Elias Atallah. In addition, the Shia Amal militia (not part of the alliance) at West Beirut was able to mobilize 10,000 fighters. Both Amal and the PSP-led coalition received the discreet, yet fundamental backing of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Syrian Army, who provided logistical and artillery support.
The Lebanese Forces militia had about 2,500 lightly equipped Christian militiamen in the Chouf, mostly tied up in static garrison duties throughout the region’s main towns whereas another 2,000 fighters were deployed alongside LAF ground units at West Beirut. The Lebanese Army committed five newly formed mechanized infantry brigades – the Fourth Brigade, Fifth Brigade, Sixth Brigade, Seventh Brigade, and Eighth Brigade – totaling roughly some 10,000 men, placed under the overall command of Gen. Tannous and the Lebanese Armed Forces Chief-of-Staff, the Druze General Nadim al-Hakim. Deployed in the western Chouf, and at both the western and eastern sectors of Beirut, the army brigades benefited from aerial, artillery, and logistical support lent by U.S. and French forces of the MNF contingent. In this post-Israeli period in the Chouf the Lebanese Forces and the regular army occasionally fought side-by-side, but at other times they were opponents. This lack of coordination between the LF and the government was due to the deep distrust that LF senior commanders felt towards President Amin Gemayel, its political moderate posture and friendly relations with Muslim and Palestinian leaders.
The Druze offensive
As soon as the last Israeli units left the Chouf, the Druze launched on September 5 a full-scale offensive on Lebanese Forces’ and Lebanese Army positions at Deir el-Qamar, Kabr Chmoun and Bhamdoun. Warned by the PLO at the last minute of the eminent Druze attack, the Lebanese Forces’ command belatedly began evacuating Christian civilians from the villages around Deir el-Qamar, but there was no more time left to evacuate the rest, leaving the surrounding countryside virtually undefended. For their part, the LF garrison forces were completely caught by surprise by the ferocity of the assault and were outnumbered. Supported by obsolescent field guns, TOW Jeeps, Heavy machine guns and recoilless rifles on gun-trucks, and anti-aircraft autocannons mounted on wheeled armoured personnel carriers (APC)s, they tried desperately to hold their ground at Bhamdoun against a determined enemy now equipped with Soviet-made tanks, tracked and wheeled APCs, long-range artillery and MBRLs supplied on loan by Syria.
Bhamdoun fell on the 7th, followed two days later by Kabr Chmoun, forcing the Lebanese Forces troops’ to fall back to Deir el-Qamar, which held 40,000 Christian residents and refugees and was defended by 1,000 LF militiamen. The Lebanese Forces command accused the Druze PSP of both ransacking Bhamdoun and of committing ‘unprecedented massacres’ in the Chouf. Between 7 and 13 September, Jumblatt’s militia forces overran sixty-two Maronite villages, slaughtered 1,500 people and drove another 50,000 out of their homes in the mountainous areas east and west of Beirut.
When the Lebanese Army was forced to pull back on September 12, in order to strengthen their position around Souk El Gharb, the Druze moved forward to fill the gap. This allowed their artillery point-blank line of sight to the U.S. Marine position at Beirut Airport, overlooked by mountains of strategic value on three sides—designated the ‘three 8’ hills—and on September 15, Druze forces and their allies massed on the threshold of Souk El Gharb.
The battle of Souk El Gharb
At Souk El Gharb and Khalde however, it was the Lebanese Army and not the LF who confronted the Druze militias; for the next three days the army's Eighth Brigade led by Colonel Michel Aoun bore the brunt of the attacks, fighting desperately to retain control of the town. The revived Lebanese Air Force (FAL, in the French acronym) was also thrown into the fray for the first time since the 1975-77 phase of the Lebanese Civil War, in a form of a squadron of ten repaired British-made Hawker Hunter fighter jets sent to support the beleguered Lebanese Army units in the Chouf. Because the main air base at Rayak had been shelled by the Syrian Army, the Hunters had to operate from an improvised airfield at Halat, near Jbeil, built by the Americans by using part of the coastal highway. The last combat sortie of the FAL was flown in September 17, when three Lebanese ‘Hunters’, backed by a squadron of French Navy’s Super Etendards from the aircraft carrier Clemenceau made an attempt to bomb and strafe Druze and Syrian gun emplacements in the Chouf. However, the Druze were awaiting for them with SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles and AA autocannons. One ‘Hunter’ was shot down by a SA-7 and the pilot barely managed to eject himself into the sea, being rescued by a U.S. Navy vessel. The second Hunter was heavily damaged by ground fire and made a forced landing at Halat. The third did not return to the base but flew straight to the RAF air base at Akrotiri, Cyprus, where the pilot eventually requested political asylum upon arrival.
United States Navy warships shelled Druze positions and helped the Lebanese Army hold the town until an informal cease-fire was declared on September 25 at Damascus, the day the battleship USS New Jersey arrived at the scene. Although the Lebanese Army had beaten the Druze forces on the battlefield, it was a pyhrric victory, for it marked the beginning of a confessional split in its ranks. Just prior to the cease-fire, Gen. al-Hakim, the LAF Chief-of-Staff and commander of the predominantely Druze Seventh Brigade, fled into PSP-held territory, but he would not admit he had actually defected. After linking up at Khalde with their Shiite Amal allies, the Druze PSP militia forces drove the mixed Fourth Brigade 3½ miles south to the vicinity of Damour, in the Iqlim al-Kharrub coastal enclave, as they attempted to create a salient from Aley to the coast at Khalde, south of Beirut. Surrounded and badly mauled, the Brigade disintegrated when approximately 900 Druze enlisted men, plus 60 Officers and NCOs, deserted the Brigade to join their coreligionists of Jumblatt’s PSP or SSNP militias. The remaining 1,000 or so Christian Maronite Officers and men fled south across the Awali River, seeking protection behind Israeli lines while leaving behind some U.S.-made Tanks and armored personnel carriers, Jeeps and ammunition. After reaching Sidon, the soldiers were evacuated by sea to East Beirut, where they enrolled in other Christian-dominated army elite units.
The Geneva Conference
The September 25th cease-fire temporarily stabilized the situation. The Gemayel government maintained its jurisdiction over the West Beirut districts, the Shia Amal movement had not yet fully committed itself in the fighting, and Jumblatt’s PSP remained landlocked in the Chouf Mountains. The Lebanese government and opposition personalities agreed to meet in Geneva, Switzerland, for a national reconciliation conference under the auspices of Saudi Arabia and Syria, and chaired by President Gemayel to discuss political reform and the May 17 Agreement.
For its part, the United States had clearly inherited Israel's role of shoring up the precarious Lebanese government. An emergency arms shipment had been dispatched earlier on September 14 to the beleaguered Lebanese Army units fighting in the Chouf, which were backed by air strikes and naval gunfire from the battleship USS New Jersey. On September 29, the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in East Beirut was hit by shell-fire and in response, the U.S. Marines’ contingent stationed at Beirut International Airport was ordered to use its M198 155mm howitzers in support of the Lebanese Army. That same day, the United States Congress, by a solid majority, adopted a resolution declaring the 1973 War Powers Resolution to apply to the situation in Lebanon and sanctioned the U.S. military presence for an eighteen-month period. The U.S. vice-president George H. W. Bush made clear the position of the Reagan administration by demanding that Syria “get out from the Lebanon”. A large naval task-force of more than a dozen vessels was assembled off the Lebanese coast and an additional contingent of 2,000 U.S. Marines was sent to the country. The United States Department of Defense (DoD) stated that the increase of its military forces in the eastern Mediterranean had been carried out to “sent a message to Syria”.
Many international analysts believed that these measures implemented by the U.S. government were meant to reshape the power balance in the region in favour of the Amin Gemayel administration, in detriment of the Syrians and their Lebanese allies. Indeed, the United States was now perceived in many circles as just another foreign power attempting to assert its influence in Lebanese affairs by force, just as Israel and Syria had done.
Alarmed by this aggressive American posture (which seriously compromised the neutrality of the Multinational Force) and fearing for the safety of their own MNF contingents in Lebanon, the British, French and Italian governments voiced their concerns, insisting with the Reagan administration to restrict its activities in the region to the protection of Lebanese civilians and to stop supporting what they considered an ongoing assault of the Gemayel government on his own people. However, President Reagan refused to modify its intransigent position and on October 1, another huge shipment of arms was delivered to the Lebanese Army, including M48A5 main battle tanks (MBTs) and long-range artillery. The delivery of arms shipments was complemented by continuous naval artillery barrages. Steaming to within two miles of the Lebanese coast, the battleship USS New Jersey, the destroyer USS John Rodgers and the nuclear-powered cruiser USS Virginia fired on their 5-inch naval guns some six-hundred 70 lb shells into the wooded hills above Beirut. For many Lebanese Muslims, this was the last straw – any illusion of U.S. ‘neutrality’ had been dispelt by these recent developments and the MNF soon found itself exposed to hostile fire.
MNF barracks bombing
Early in the morning of October 23, two almost simultaneous suicide truck bomb attacks struck the US Marines’ Battalion Landing Team (BTL) building at Khaldeh international airport and the French Paratrooper’s Barracks at the 'Drakkar' apartment bloc in the Ramlet El-Baida quarter of Bir Hassan, Ouzai district, killing 241 American servicemen and 58 French paratroopers. Again, the Shiite Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility and warned of further attacks.
The French promptly responded to the suicide bombings with air strikes against Islamic Jihad targets in the Beqaa valley. French Super Etendards from the aircraft carrier Foch retaliated by striking Nebi Chit, thought to house the Islamic Amal (a splinter faction of the Amal movement), and also the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ base at Ras el-Ain near Baalbek, but failed to hit the facilities. They also struck at Syrian Army’s and Druze PSP positions in the Chouf region while U.S. warships kept up their artillery barrages against Syrian and Druze gun emplacements overlooking Beirut.
The evacuation of Souk El Gharb and Deir el-Qamar
In early December, the PSP leader Walid Jumblatt, ostensibly as a gesture of goodwill on humanitarian grounds and without any preconditions, offered to lift the sieges of Souk El Gharb and Deir el-Qamar, which had been cut off since September and had to rely on weekly International Red Cross (IRC) relief convoys for food and medical supplies. The Israelis underscored the extent of their responsibility for their Lebanese allies on December 15 when they stepped in to help the IRC in the evacuation of some 2,500 Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) militiamen and 5,000 civilians from Deir el-Qamar and Souk El Gharb. IDF armor and mechanized infantry units provided cover for the exodus towards the Israeli-controlled Awali River line. There were some tense moments as Druze militiamen, waving their rifles, jeered the LF fighters, who had been bundled into Israeli military trucks. The Christian fighters and the civilian refugees were eventually taken by ship by the Israeli Navy from the Israeli-occupied port of Sidon to Christian-controlled areas around Beirut.
At West Beirut, violent clashes erupted on December 24 when Lebanese Army detachments attempted to occupy positions just vacated by the departing French MNF contingent. This time the Druze PSP joined the Amal Movement in the fighting, forcing the battered government forces to withdraw to East Beirut after a five-day street battle.
On January 5, the Lebanese Government announced that a disengagement plan to demilitarize Beirut and its environs, had been approved by Israel, Syria, the Lebanese Forces, and the Shia Amal and Druze PSP militias. However, implementation of the plan was delayed by continual inter-factional fighting in and around the Lebanese Capital, but also in Tripoli.
As sporadic fighting broke out again on January 16, there were fears that the informal cease-fire that has generally prevailed since late September 1983 was breaking down. Druze artillerymen again shelled Christian-controlled East Beirut and the Marines positions around the International Airport, with Amal and the Lebanese Army joining at the fringes. This in turn provoked a response from the 5-inch naval guns of the battleship USS New Jersey and the destroyer USS Tattnall, firing at Druze gun emplacements in the hills surrounding Beirut.
The fall of West Beirut
On February 1 Walid Jumblatt finally denounced the Lebanese Government’s disengagement plan as a waste of time, while its PSP troops now linked with Nabih Berri’s Amal militia units in order to attack Lebanese Army positions within West Beirut. Although forced out of the Shiyah quarter by Amal, the Lebanese Army launched three days later a combined counteroffensive with the Lebanese Forces on the Shia-populated southwestern suburbs of the Lebanese capital. The PSP-Amal alliance forces promptly reacted that same day by mounting simultaneous ground assaults against Government and LF-held positions in the city centre along the Green Line, and on the southern and eastern districts.
The collapse of the Lebanese Army
The decisive defeat of the Lebanese Army on two key fronts led it once again to disintegrate along confessional lines, as many demoralized Muslim soldiers began to defect to join the opposition or confined themselves to barracks. Following an open appeal by Nabih Berri, the predominantely Shiite Sixth Brigade deserted en bloc to Amal.
On March 5, the Lebanese Government canceled the May 17 agreement; the last U.S. Marines departed a few weeks later.
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- Battle of the Hotels
- Damour massacre
- Lebanese Civil War
- Lebanese Armed Forces
- Lebanese Forces
- Sabra and Shatila massacre
- 1983 beirut embassy bombing
- 1983 Beirut barracks bombing
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