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International Socialism, July/August 1976


Terry Povey


Another Black September? [1]


From International Socialism (1st series), No.90, July/August 1976, pp.12-15.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


WHEN we wrote in IS 87 that ‘the policing role of the Syrians may all too soon be transformed into one of defending the state ...’ we did so within the context of a Syrian-managed ceasefire, the longest lasting one to date, that ran from the end of January to mid-March. By early April the Syrian forces were clearly intervening against the Palestinians and the left and attemps were being made to impose a stranglehold over supplies of arms and ammunition to these forces whereas no such efforts were being made as far as the right were concerned.

In the last few weeks regular Syrian troops, not even disguised as PLA [2] or Saiqa [3] forces have entered Lebanon in huge numbers with Russian backing, American encouragement and the tacit approval of Israel. The only shots fired appear to have been against the Palestinians and the left, with the leadership of the PLO now talking of the danger of another ‘Black September’ being carried out, by Syria this time.

1970-74: The seed is sown

In the autumn of 1970 King Hussein’s army drove the main armed sections of the resistance (as the Palestinians prefer to call their fighters) from Jordan and into southern Lebanon. During the fighting some 10,000-20,000 were killed – hence ‘Black September.’ No Arab state intervened on the Palestinians’ behalf and from this time onward only in Lebanon could most of the groups operate and train.

It is important to note that the one intervention made on behalf of the resistance during Black September was that of the PLA division based in Syria plus some Syrian regular forces. The result of the latter’s involvement was an internal crisis in Damascus which ended in a coup led by Assad (considered firmly on the right at that time.) One of the reasons for the lack of success of the Syrian force had been the lack of air cover – Assad was commander of the air force at the time.

So the process of arming and training, with some degree of independence from the Arab states, that had commenced in 1967 came to be concentrated almost totally in southern Lebanon. Here, unlike in Jordan, the resistance was much more careful to develop close links with the various indigenous left groups, often acting as defenders of these against the rightists and or the state militias. Also there is no doubt that both training and small arms were provided for some of these groups.

This situation was not one to please the ruling class of the Lebanon, having as it did the double role of maintaining its own authority and that of the largely Maronite clique who ran the country.

Things reached a peak in May 1973 when the security forces attempted to crack down on the south. However the forces at the disposal of the Lebanese state were not large and the attempt failed. October 1973, with its limited victory for the Arab forces over Israel, further underlined the growing strength and confidence of the resistance. In the camps feelings were running high against any settlement with Israel and for a real fight against it.

By the end of 1974 the Lebanese state no longer had any effective control in the southern part of the country. Increasingly, local militias backed by Palestinian forces were taking control. The crisis had increasingly become one of the ruling class itself and the task of maintaining the Maronite ascendancy was becoming ever more difficult.

Sidon Fights – and Wins!

Late in February of 1975 a strike of fishermen took place in Sidon (Saida) the largest city in the south and the third biggest of the whole country. The fishing industries are owned almost totally by two Maronite families and the one owning the Sidon concern was that of Camille Chamoun. Chamoun, who had been president of the country during the 1958 crisis and who at that time had got the Americans to send in the marines to back him up, was one of the leading figures in the largest Maronite Party – the National Liberal Party (al Ahrar). He was also commander of its militia and most importantly he was Minister of the Interior.

It was in this last capacity that he ordered in troops to bring the strike to an end. Once again, however, the weakness of the states security forces was exposed and local militias organised by Nasserite and Ba’athist groups (with some involvement by the Lebanese Communist Party – the CPL) defeated and drove them off. Although some Palestinians were involved in the fighting these were not present as distinct formations.

By the end of the first week of March, mass solidarity demonstrations were taking place across the country – in particular in Beirut and Tripoli. Sidon itself was in a state of a localised insurrection and was being governed, in part, by local committees and in part also by the leftist/Arab nationalist militias. When a local Sunni leader died from wounds inflicted by the security forces a nation-wide general strike was held in protest.

The failure of the security forces at Sidon was the last straw for the Christian extreme right and fascist groups (see insert). For if the strong man of the Maronite ruling class could be humiliated in this way then what hope did the lesser lights have? So even though the state was their state, created for and by them, it’s organs were not sufficient for the task of regaining control over the south and putting paid to the Palestinian involvement in Lebanese affairs. From this point onwards the ruling class turned increasingly towards their own militias, they bought arms, recruited mercenaries and generally prepared themselves for a propitious moment to begin the counterattack.


The Phalangists – Pierre Gemayel

The National Liberals – Camille Chamoun

Zghorta Liberation Army – Suleiman Franjieh

Maronite Orders of Monks – Charbel Kassis

Zahleh General Union – Joseph Skaff and Elias Al-Hawari

Cedars Guards – Said Aql

Front of the Cedars Guards – Fuad Chemali and George Adwan

The Maronite League – Shaker Abu-Sleiman

The Cedars Cubs, St Nahra’s Gang (terrorist gangs)

Several other private militias, best known is Henri Sfeir’s

All are grouped together into At-Tanzeem (The Organisation)

The Egypt-Israel accord over the Sinai made it possible for the ‘enemy’ to be redefined as the ‘bad’ Palenstinians, that is those that were opposed to any deal with Israel. Eventually after a month of vague offers by the Prime Minister- to the Muslims of ‘restructuring’, the forces of the Kataeb (or Phalangists) struck and massacred all the passengers on a bus returning from a rejection forces’ meeting. So the first stage of the civil war began.

April-June 1975: The rich against the Rejection Forces

During this first stage in the civil war fighting was mainly between the Kataeb (plus most of Chamoun’s men on an unofficial basis) and the rejection forces, the latter aided by some of the smaller Lebanese groups that have similar lines. At this stage Fatah did not enter the battle as such although some units did become involved in local actions – mainly defensive.

From the very start the right attacked the largely but not totally Muslim inhabited ‘belt of misery’ in Beirut. This is an area of appalling squalor in which two-thirds of the city’s population live, that is 600,000 persons. It is a low lying area overlooked by the wealthier and largely Christian areas and it also contains seven Palestinian refugee camps, one at least of which is predominantely Christian but which was attacked nevertheless. This area also houses most of the workers of Beirut (80 per cent of whom earn less than £20 per week with a cost of living higher than London’s).

By the end of May it was quite clear to the right that the fighting might at any moment develop into a full scale civil war and they began to demand that the army step in to help them.

The ruling class begins to fear that it had overdone things at this point and attempted at the same time to conciliate by playing around with governmental formations – a traditional Lebanese sport. To widen the area for manoeuvre with the Muslim bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie the Prime Minister resigned; two days later he was back heading a caretaker government. Eight days later a military provisional government was formed – with the traditional quotas observed. This lasted three days until Karami was made Prime Minister. This man is the great juggler of Lebanese politics who despite being a Muslin has a very long record of ably defending the status quo.

Eventually Karami formed a government, without Gemayel or Jumblatt (leader of the Progressive Front of Lebanese Groups – see insert) in it, and by early July an uneasy peace prevailed.


Organisation of Communist Action – Muhsen Ibrahim and Fawaz Trabulsi

Communist Party of Lebanon CPL – George Hawi

Syrian National Social Party – Inan Raad faction

Syrian National Social Party – Elias Qnayzeh faction

Organisation of the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party – Abdel-Amir Abbas, pro-Syrian

Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party – A. Rifai, Pro-Iraqi

October 24 Movement – Farouk Al-Muqaddam, local to Tripoli

Socialist Arab Union – Khalil Shehab

Al-Murabitun, Independent Nasserist Organisation – Ibrahim Qlaylat

The Nasserist Organisation, Nasser’s Forces – Issam Arab

Nasserist Organisation, Union of Forces of Working People – Kamal Chatila

Progressive Socialist Party – Kamal Jumblatt

Movement of the Disinherited (Harakat Al-Mahrumeen) – Imam Musa Sadr

Al-Barty Party – Kurdish, Faysal, Fakhro


Several private militias of traditional leaders such as Rashid Karami, Saeb Salam, etc.


All the above, except the private militias, belong to the Front of Patriotic and Progressive Forces headed by Kamal Jumblatt

So, by the end of stage one, the initial attack of the Kataeb had been defeated, in fact they rarely take the initiative from now on. The pro-settlement sections of the resistance i.e. Fatah, Democratic Front and Saiqa kept their involvement to a minimum but; most important, the indigenous left heartened no doubt by the defeats suffered by the Kataeb were fully involved.

July 1975 – January 1976: Left versus right

One other result of the first phase was the establishment of the ‘Lebanese Patriotic and Progressive Front’ (PFF) under the leadership of Jumblatt and containing some fifteen groups, the most important of which are Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (mainly Druze), the CPL, the Nasserites and the Ba’athist factions.

The summer although punctuated by outbreaks of fighting passed without any significant changes. In early September the rightist Zghorta militia (commanded by President Franjieh) massacres Muslim bus passengers in the northern city of Tripoli (second largest in Lebanon – population 150,000 plus, and heavily Muslim). Very heavy fighting followed in the Tripoli area with renewed demands by the right for the army to move in. Karami sacked the general who led the 1973 attack on the Palestinians in order to try and make army intervention acceptable.

The heavy fighting in the north continued and, although the army was sent into Tripoli and did kill a number of leftists, the result was an insurrection in the city led by a local group (the October 24 Movement). The army and police were largely driven out and popular committees formed to run the city and its services. Fighting spread once again to Beirut.

Syria, increasingly anxious at the strength of the Lebanese left as well as of the anti-settlement Palestinians, sent 200 Saiqa troops to police Tripoli. Meanwhile Arafat was issuing appeals with anyone and everyone for peace – including Chamoun, Franjieh and Gemayel. Karami went with Arafat to meet Assad in Damascus but all to no apparent avail.

Throughout October and November heavy fighting between the PPF and the right continued, with the left consolidating generally. Fearful at the growth of the left, Muslim rightist and religious leaders began an anti-Communist crusade. On the day after Arafat’s return from Damascus the Kataeb of Gemayel murdered at random 20 Muslims in revenge for the death of four Christians.

As part of a generalised response to these murders the PPF launched an all-out attack on the hotel district. Much of this was seized by them despite Chamoun’s attempt to send in the army to re-occupy a hotel he owns.

In December the fighting fell off somewhat, despite the occasional heavy battle. The turning point came with a major clash between Palestinians and the Lebanese regular army at a town controlling the road between Beirut and Damascus.

Palestinian Organisations

Palestine Liberation Organisation – a ‘hold all’ containing the major groups.
Chairman: Y. Arafat

Palestine Liberation Army – regular units nominally subject to PLO

Al Fatah
Largest Palestinian group – pro-settlement

(i.e. favours West Bank state).
Top man: Y. Arafat

Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Main rejectionist organisation.
Top man: G. Habash

General Command. Smaller rejectionist organisation

Formerly most left-wing of the organisations. Now pro-settlement

Arab Liberation Forces. Pro-Iraqi rejectionist

Pro-Syrian, now largely incorporated in Syrian forces

By early January the Palestinians were back in the war when the Kataeb laid siege to a small refugee camp in Beirut. This camp was over-run and so by the end of the month were the isolated Muslim areas of Karantina and Maslakh. In all of these the Kataeb and NLP murdered many civilians and evicted the rest of the population, burning the slums as they did so. Despite these setbacks, the general position of the Palestinian and PPF alliance was strong and they inflicted a number of severe defeats on the right, and so the right announced the next ceasefire, which by the end of January was more or less effective.

January-March 1976: Syria moves in

From the beginning of this truce its characteristic was the establishment of fairly fixed borders around the Kataeb and NLP controlled areas in the vicinity of Beirut. The talk increasingly was of partition, particularly from the extreme right led by Abbot Kassis (head of the Maronite Order of monks – and of a neo-fascist militia) who threatened to divide the country rather than accept any alteration in the ‘Lebanese format’, that is in the status quo.

On the 20 January between 5000 and 8000 PLA regular troops entered Lebanon from Syria, Chamoun (speaking as Interior Minister) called it a ‘Syrian invasion that threatens world security’. Within a couple of days they were policing the ceasefire and had advanced a seven-point plan for a political settlement of the civil war. The main proposal was that of the equal representation of Christians and Muslims in parliament, however in order to get President Franjieh (also commander of the Zghorta militia) to accept this and some changes in the distribution of senior posts between the main groups, three secret items were also agreed upon. These were – the removal of heavy arms from the Palestinian camps in Christian areas and PLO acceptance of the deal – and the responsibility for ending the fighting to rest with the Syrians.

From this point onwards the resistance should have been forwarned as to the role that Assad was going to play. Yet once again they forgot the history of their own movement, let alone any serious analysis of role of the regimes in the Middle East. They preferred to trust in ‘our comrade in arms, Syria’. Despite this ‘trust’ the PLO were, by the end of February, increasingly critical of the behaviour of both Saiqa and the PLA.

One spokesman, Salah Khalaf (number two to Arafat), speaking in Beirut asserted the desire of the PLO to be independent of any individual Arab state. Of Saiqa he said,

‘We are having differences not with Syrian but with those who pretend to be speaking on behalf of Syria. These are Syrian employees – not Palestinian leaders.’

He also called for the restoration of ‘normality’ and even went on to state,

‘We do not want anything from Lebanon – not even our activity from the south of the country. We are willing to give this up.’

When in March clashes between pro-Syrian and rejection forces began to increase in frequency, Arafat and the PLO leaders used their influence to break up the Lebanese army, leading to the formation of the LAA (Lebanese Arab army) under Al Khatib.

This collapse in the armed forces deepened even further the crisis for the ruling class – for now there was not even an army to call upon to intervene. Dependance on the Syrian forces was now the main hope of the right. For although between them the PLO, PPF and LAA forces controlled over two thirds of the country as yet there was still no proposals from any of these for seizing power – even the reformist plans were coming from other directions.

Governmental games were started up again with the attempted military coup of Brig.-General Ahdab, a general now without either army or even a personal militia, and then the near moribund parliamentary process was revived in order to try and get Franjieh out of the presidential seat. Jumblatt became temporarily so excited by this as to threaten ‘if he does not resign, the revolution will continue for our complete control of power.’

The third phase then came to an end with the right in a worse position than before but with the left, although stronger militarily, in no better position to take over. This continued failure, however, was giving the Syrians the time they needed to get the agreement of the US and Israel to move more decisively.

April-June: Syrian Gambles and Loses?

In early April, Syria moved to seal the borders and to blockade the ports so as to deprive the Palestinians and PPF of arms and ammunition supplies. Jumblatt protested that this was being carried out by Syrian regular troops disguised as Saiqa guerillas.

The deadly exchange of shelling between the artillery of the PLA and the Kataeb made the confessional nature of the fighting finally become overwhelming. As this was the sole contribution of the PLA to the fight against the right it stands as a real condemnation of the Syrian regime which will leave a mark for a long time on the poor of the Christian groups.

At the end of April the US noted the ‘constructuve role’ of the Syrians and as the Financial Times (27.4) said

‘Now both the US and Israel seem to have realised that Syrian tutelage of Lebanon is preferable to an unstable potentially radical state. For the logic of a Pax-Syriana ... is that (they) will seek to control the activities of the Palestinians.’

With this encouragement, as well as with the backing of the Russians, the Syrians moved armour and infantry across the border. They also succeeded, with the near unanimous support of the right, in getting their candidate elected as President to replace Franjieh. This man, Sarkis, had previously been the governor of the Central Bank.

The first large scale use of these fresh troops was in a savage attack on Tripoli that left hundreds of dead from the rejection forces who had previously controlled the city. This led to a realignment in the Palestinian camp between Fatah and the rejection forces against the Syrians and in particular, against the Saiqa troops who were refusing to heed Arafat’s orders. Some however of the Saiqa and PLA troops could not accept their new role as oppressors of their comrades and there were reports of large numbers of desertions from these to join both Fatah and the LAA.

After a period of hesitation the Syrian armour moved down to attack the Progressive Front positions in early June. Kosygin, visiting Damascus, expressed complete support for Syria and wished its leaders success during ‘these days of trial’. Much to the surprise of the invaders, the Progressive Front forces fought back fiercely and in a series of pitched battles drove back the tanks.

In fact information over the phone from the Joint Lebanese-Palestinian forces in Beirut states that:

‘From Beirut-pro-Syrian forces driven from camps areas and the front attempting to dislodge them from the vicinity of the airport.

‘In the outskirts of the city rightist Phalangist forces join with invasion force in attack on the Tel Al Zaater Camp-attack is beaten off with heavy losses on both sides.

‘Tripoli-Syrian regular forces . . . have withdrawn under fire.

‘Sidon-Syrian forces repulsed late last night ...’

This same communiqué confirmed the near total break up of the Syrian controlled factions within both the Lebanon (some leaders of which described the invasion as ‘fascist’ and dissolved their groups) and amongst the Palestinians as the head (and his deputy) [4] of the Saiqa guerrillas fled from the capital to the area controlled by the right around Jounieh.

So by the middle of June the Syrians had to accept that short of a long drawn out war they were not going to defeat the forces of the Progressive Front in the Lebanon. They now have joined in calling for a joint Arab peace keeping force. This force of Libyan, Algerian, PLO and Syrian troops is moving into the country via Damascus.

The Arab World Unites and Egypt is ‘Rehabilitated’

In IS 87 we linked the situation in the Lebanon and the opportunities for the Progressive Front there with the position of the PLO on a settlement with Israel. At that time the main stream PLO view was that all else was subordinated to the possibility of a West Bank State.

It is clear that during the crucial periods Arafat weighed carefully the risk to his policies (of international diplomacy) of PLO involvement in the fighting. It is equally clear that following the risings inside Occupied Palestine that he felt that the possibility of any peaceful settlement was very remote indeed. US pressure on Israel had failed to produce anything tangible that could be offset against the repression in Galilee and the West Bank arid also against the loss of freedom of action in southern Lebanon that any defeat there would entail.

So after the Syrian moves in March Arafat increasingly committed Fatah against them.

Yet the basic policies of Arafat remain, first Syria is the brother and Egypt is the traitor – with Hussein in Jordan a heartily despised murderer. Syria also took the same view of both Egypt and Jordan although they differed with the resistance on the view to take with regard to the Iraqi’s and Libyans. Following the massed intervention of Syria in May, where was Arafat to be found but in Cairo, arm in arm with Sadat and Syria and Jordan were friends again!

It is largely Sadat and the Saudis that have engineered the ‘peace keeping force’ although they have wisely kept themselves out of it.

Once again then, the Palestinians are to be made victims of the politics of manoeuvre amongst the ruling classes of the Arab world, none of whom wish to see either an independent armed movement fighting Israel or the smashing of the Maronite state in the Lebanon. No-one should be in any doubt that it is far easier for them to think in terms of another ‘Black September’ than it is to take up the struggle against imperialism. The ‘peace keepers’ will turn on the Palestinians and in particular those willing to fight on rather than see a radical anti-Israeli regime come to power in the Lebanon.

Lebanon – what chance a government of ‘Progressives’?

One must be clear about one point and that is that the only party which contains any workers at all is the CPL and that the vast majority of the working class are not behind any of the parties. Therefore the possibility of a socialist revolution led by a workers’ party is zero, although the collapse of the state did create a pre-revolutionary situation.

The limit of the possibilities is the destruction of the old Maronite state and its replacement by a radical Arab nationalist one under the leadership of Jumblatt. Jumblatt is no revolutionary; in fact he is a feudal chief of the Druze sect.

As to the Communist Party of the Lebanon, it is in a highly contradictory position. For the CP of Syria is a member of the government coalition that sent in the troops, and the CP of Jordan has followed King Hussein by welcoming the ‘intervention on behalf of humanity’. As a thoroughly Stalinist party it is also heavily stagist in its approach to the struggle, believing in trie need for an alliance between the workers and intellectuals (itself) and the Muslim bourgeoisie in order that a truly national regime be established. That is, it increasingly is surrendering its initiative to these elements e.g. in the calling off of general strikes for fear that they might offend Muslim bosses.

Other significant groups on the left include the Communist Action Organisation which followed the line of the Democratic Front very closely, ie it was stagist, pro-settlement and is increasingly identified with the CPL, just as the Democratic Front are with the Israeli CP. Many other groups exist some of which have either been marginalised by the fighting, e.g. the pro-Syrian Ba’athists, or have been born in it such as the 24 October Movement in Tripoli.

What none of these groups appear to have is even any desire to seize state power for such is the grip of the theory of stages that all are waiting for some section of the ‘real’ national bourgeoisie to save the day and stage the ‘national democratic revolution’.

One hope for a radical change in the Lebanon remains. This is in the thousands of workers, peasants and soldiers that have seen the slaughter of the last 18 months and who really do want a big change. As one of these said to a BBC interviewer,

‘tell everybody that this is not a religious war, it is class war – we don’t want Muslim landowners and bosses instead of Christian ones, we want to get rid of the lot’.


1. I am greatly indebted to the MERIP, issue number 44, Lebanon Explodes and have used the material in it freely.

2. PLA – Palestine liberation army, regular Palestinian troops based mainly in Syria and heavily under her control.

3. Saiqa – the Syrian financed Palestinian guerrilla group – again heavily under control from Damascus.

4. That is Zuheir Muhsin and his brother.

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