Fouad Boutros’s memoirs The Faydiyeh incident: Al-Assad insisted on executing Lebanese officers… so we formed an investigation committee. Franjieh surprised me by saying: Federalism is the most appropriate solution for Lebanon! Episode seven

publisher: الجريدة Al Jarideh

Publishing date: 2008-08-21


The visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem on November 19, 1977, constituted a historic turning point, with direct and serious repercussions for Lebanon. It was a moment where the image seemed to overturn, as the security situation trembled, clashes erupted, alliances shifted, and what was prohibited became a demand, and the forbidden turned into a necessity. During 1978, the alliance between Syria and the “Lebanese Front” turned into a deadly feud, and the enmity between Syria and the National Movement and Palestinian organizations transformed from a solid but cautious alliance into hostility, continuing until the departure of Palestinian fighters from Beirut in 1982.

Sadat’s visit caused an earthquake in the Lebanese equation. Syria, the National Movement, and Palestinian organizations considered it a grave betrayal and a concession on the Palestinian cause and Arab rights, weakening the front against Israel. In contrast, the “Lebanese Front” saw the visit as a precious opportunity to end the prolonged Arab-Israeli conflict, which had negatively impacted Lebanon. In reality, it brought things back to their natural state because what was unnatural was Syria’s alliance, proud to be the “beating heart of Arabism,” with the “Lebanese Front” as the epitome of Lebanese sectarianism.

As for us, the adherents to the principles of legitimacy, the rule of law, and institutions, we suffered in both cases from Lebanese factions aligning with Syria, often at the expense of sovereignty and national allegiance. I used to tell the Syrians that they should not respond more to the demands of the “Lebanese Front” than they cooperate with the legitimate authority. After Sadat’s visit to Israel, the relationship between Damascus and the “Lebanese Front” deteriorated, leading to clashes between the two sides. I argued with the Syrians, urging them not to exclude the Kataeb Party and the “Lebanese Front,” thus transitioning within a year from one extreme to the other.

Massacre, Not Clash

On the morning of the seventh of February 1978, President Sarkis entered his office after the completion of the credential ceremony for the Venezuelan ambassador. Moments later, one of the president’s aides informed us of a shooting incident between the Arab Deterrent Forces and elements of the Fayadiyah Barracks in the Lebanese army. I immediately called the Chief of Staff and ordered an immediate and strict halt to the gunfire. When I received the casualty toll, it was heavy and cause for concern: fourteen Syrians killed, twenty-eight wounded, and one Lebanese injured. I attended to the condition of the Syrian wounded by sending ten of them to the Lebanese military hospital. I spent the night alongside President Sarkis and his advisers discussing ways to calm the situation and avoid escalation. I called my Syrian counterpart Mustafa Tlass that evening, while the President contacted his counterpart Hafez al-Assad. The latter’s response was calm and reassuring: “Do not worry, this is an incident that can happen between two armies, and in any case, Syrian soldiers are like your own, work in a way that suits you.” It seemed to us that he was still unaware of the severity of the losses in his army.

At ten o’clock on the eighth of February, while still in my office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I heard the sound of shells falling on the Fayadiyah Barracks and its surroundings. I called the President, and he informed me that Syrian forces were shelling army positions, and the situation was extremely serious. He had already contacted President Assad, whose response was, “The incident is extremely serious; it is not a clash but a massacre. It is a deliberate trap set for the Syrian army, not a random incident. Such a matter raises many questions, and I will not be lenient about it (…) I cannot forgive those who open fire on my soldiers. The dignity of the entire Syrian army is at stake.” When President Sarkis suggested forming a joint military committee for investigation, the Syrian president responded, “The Lebanese army commander knows the responsible parties, but he is trying to evade responsibility, inventing exits and justifications. Forming an investigation committee is one of these inventions. The army commander wants a Lebanese-style solution that exonerates the guilty. This is unacceptable to us. He must be ready to hand over the guilty Lebanese officers to us and to execute some of them by firing squad.”

I didn’t need these details to know that the situation was more dangerous than anticipated the previous day. The perplexed voice of the president was evidence that we were facing a critical dilemma. Within an hour, the Syrian shelling expanded to include the Ministry of Defense and the road to the Presidential Palace.

Franjieh’s Boldness

At noon, I moved to my house near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, given the available facilities for making phone calls, and monitored the field developments. Clashes erupted everywhere—in Sin el Fil, Ain el Remmaneh, Shiyah, and others. I couldn’t reach the Presidential Palace before five in the afternoon. I headed there with lawyer Karim Bakradouni in a small car without any escort. We had to change our route four times due to shelling and clashes, and we faced more than one gunfire attack. The Cabinet convened at six, and I proposed several ideas, including sending a person appointed by President Sarkis to Syria to discuss with the Syrian President a way to stop the security deterioration. The name of Karim Bakradouni was suggested for the mission. I spent the evening in the Presidential Palace until ten at night, conducting a series of communications with Syrian officials Naji Jamil and Hikmat al-Shihabi because Minister Abdul-Halim Khaddam was still in the Gulf.

On the morning of the ninth of February, the President called me and informed me that the Syrians had contacted him, telling him that they had changed their minds about coming to Lebanon and were waiting for us in Damascus. After consulting about the difficulty of the situation and Syrian stubbornness, President Sarkis suggested that we seek the help of President Suleiman Frangieh, who was close to the Syrian president, and ask him to go to Syria in the hope of calming the situation. The former president readily agreed to the suggestion and quickly came to Baabda Palace. From there, President Frangieh and I, accompanied by Arab Deterrent Forces commander Sami al-Khatib, set out at eleven forty-five, after conducting a series of calls to verify the safety of the road. Upon our arrival in Damascus, we met with Abdul-Halim Khaddam, Naji Jamil, and Hikmat al-Shihabi. After having lunch with them, we moved, without al-Shihabi, to the meeting with the Syrian president.

The talks with Assad were marked by firmness and determination but with clear diplomacy. I was actually surprised by President Frangieh’s boldness, as I did not expect such strong positions from him. On the other hand, I did not anticipate President Assad’s rigidity towards President Frangieh.

Impact of Reuters Statements

An agreement was reached with the Syrians to form a special security court. The investigation body officially started its task on the morning of the seventeenth of February. Syrian officers in the body had conducted some investigations in the Presidential Palace after an agreement between Lebanese and Syrian officials and the leaders of the Lebanese Front to conduct a joint investigation into the events at Fayadiyeh. Initially, things went as planned. We demonstrated seriousness in dealing with the events without undermining the Lebanese army’s prestige and morale, and there were no arbitrary arrests. The army accepted the idea of the mixed court, but I felt a lack of coordination and clarity of vision among the parties. No one knew what they should do, who should be ordered to arrest whom and how. Calls and questions poured in from the army, judges, and the Arab Deterrent Forces.

I tried to avoid delving into details, but I quickly realized that I could not distance myself from the process. The situation was delicate, and any detail could lead to a crisis. In case of a crisis, I would be responsible for finding a solution. In reality, Lebanon did not lack factors for escalation. While negotiating between the sixteenth and seventeenth of February with the Free Patriotic Movement to hand over those who fired at the Syrian army in Furn al-Chebak and facilitate the mission of the joint investigation body, French press agencies and Reuters reported on the afternoon of the sixteenth of February that President Camille Chamoun said Christians were facing a genocide by the Syrians. This statement was like a shock to me and to all those working on calming the security and political situation. A sense of extreme anxiety pervaded the country. I, along with others, launched an extensive campaign of communications to ease the atmosphere until a clarifying statement was issued by President Chamoun on the morning of the seventeenth of February. He practically denied accusing the Syrian regime of attempting to commit genocide against Christians.

When the atmosphere calmed down a bit, I went home to have lunch and take a break after feeling exhausted. I hadn’t even laid down when my Foreign Ministry secretary, Samir Mubarak, came to me with urgent administrative matters. Afterward, he asked me about any updates in the situation. I told him, “I don’t understand what the Lebanese Front wants. They vote in parliament in favor of establishing a mixed court, then they make fiery statements and provocations that confuse everything. I ask them, are you now against the Syrians staying in Lebanon? They answer, no, we want them to stay now. Then I see some of them doing everything to clash with the Syrians. I ask them to hand over two or three of those who fabricated the events, and they refuse. They want both sides at the same time. How can I negotiate with the Syrians, calm their fears, and absorb their anger when they have suffered so many casualties? I think the current government should resign, and a political government should take its place. Let them take responsibility, and let’s see what they will do.”

Formal Leadership

While investigations were ongoing, Arab Deterrent Forces Commander Sami Al-Khatib contacted me on the twenty-third of February and requested a meeting. I received him at Baabda Palace in the presence of Army Commander Victor Khoury. Al-Khatib presented me with a list containing the names of twelve officers and five non-commissioned officers, insisting that they be arrested urgently and as quickly as possible. I immediately responded to Al-Khatib that this request was impossible, even if they were all guilty. After a heated debate, Al-Khatib settled for demanding the arrest of two officers. At that time, I felt that Al-Khatib had been practically excluded from the leadership of the Arab Deterrent Forces and had become a nominal commander. On that morning, there was a noisy session attended by the Foreign Affairs, Defense, Administration, and Justice committees, chaired by the Speaker of Parliament Kamil Al-Asaad. The government was represented by Minister of Interior Salah Salman, who attended part of the meeting. During that session, we faced the harshest criticisms for our handling of the events in Fayadiyeh and the delay in passing the defense law.

Between the twentieth and twenty-fourth of February, two officers, Lieutenant Fares Ziyadeh and Lieutenant Antoine Haddad, in addition to Captain Samir Al-Ashqar and two soldiers, were arrested amid ongoing fluctuations in the Syrian position, swinging between threats and satisfaction with the progress of the investigation. During this period, I met with Colonel Zain Maki, who seemed concerned about what Sami Al-Khatib had said regarding the mixed judicial body being responsible if the situation deteriorated again. At that time, I had the impression that the Syrians wanted to corner us to obtain death sentences for our officers involved in the Fayadiyeh events or to gain some political leverage. In my analyses, I leaned towards the second possibility.

On Friday, the twenty-fourth of February, the day Syrian soldiers lifted the siege on the Fayadiyeh barracks and the surrounding Lebanese military positions, I had lunch at President Chamoun’s table. We were alone when he expressed his anger at the actions of the Kataeb party. He said he did not favor the idea of forming a new government because it would include people like Assem Qansou and Amin Gemayel. He proposed expanding the current government and expressed his willingness to accept a ministerial seat in it. He returned to the tune of asking the Americans for military intervention in Lebanon. I rejected this request, citing information confirming that Lebanon should never make such a request as it would not be beneficial and could have negative repercussions. Additionally, Washington was not even considering discussing this matter. I immediately called the U.S. Ambassador, Richard Parker, and requested a meeting at three o’clock with President Chamoun to convince him to abandon the idea of direct American intervention in Lebanon.

Fiery Prelude from Khaddam

On the following day, I met with the public prosecutors of the Special Security Court, discussing the progress of the investigation and learning details of the lengthy meeting they had with members of the investigation committee. They informed me that the Syrian investigators received clear and direct orders to impose and carry out death penalties. These individuals did not seem to consider legal considerations seriously. In the evening, I held a lengthy meeting with the President to assess the situation and prepare for my planned visit to Damascus on the twenty-eighth of February 1978.

I met with my Syrian counterpart, Abdul Halim Khaddam, at one in the afternoon. Soon after, Deputy Minister of Defense Naji Jamil joined us. The first round of talks, lasting about an hour and a quarter, focused on two fundamental issues: the ongoing investigations into the Fayadiyeh events and the renewal of the Arab Deterrent Forces in Lebanon. We had lunch at half past two, with the participation of General Mustafa Tlass and some senior officers of the Syrian army, including Ali Doba and Mohammed Khoury. A friendly atmosphere prevailed at the table. After lunch, we had the second round of talks, which continued until nine in the evening. Besides the Fayadiyeh and Arab Deterrent Forces topics, we discussed the formation of a new government in Lebanon, national consensus, and the policy of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

Abdul Halim Khaddam was extremely inflexible, considering that “there will be no state and no army in Lebanon unless the Lebanese state is struck with an iron fist, and the death penalty is executed against the officers responsible for the Fayadiyeh events. What good is a new government, and what good is the search for national consensus as long as the authority of the state is lost? Everything is shaking in Lebanon, warning of collapse.” He criticized everyone severely: the President, the Prime Minister, the army, its commander, and the officers loyal to the elements of the “Lebanese Front.” He concluded with the following statement: “You have to decide whether you want to be present or not. It seems President Elias Sarkis is not eager to act.”

I felt that Khaddam’s positions were like the prelude to an impending attack that Syrian President Hafez al-Assad intended to launch in our upcoming meeting on the same day. I chose not to reveal all my cards at once and only commented on some of the ideas presented by the Syrian Foreign Minister. I preferred to elaborate on my stance during the meeting with President al-Assad.

Centuries of Animosity

We received the Syrian President at a quarter past nine in the evening. He appeared, as usual, articulate and courteous, but very rigid and unyielding. The meeting began with criticism of the Lebanese state and the President: “What does Sarkis want? If the army is under his command, let him prove it, and if not, let him allow us to act. If he lacks a forward vision, all talk and measures are useless.” Assad strongly criticized the leader of the Kataeb Party, Pierre Gemayel, and his sons Amin and Bashir, describing them as “agents of Israel.” It was the first time Assad had uttered such dangerous words in front of me, making me consider the situation more challenging than anticipated.

This significant escalation did not deter me from continuing the tactic I had started with Khaddam. I decided to open my remarks by deeming the idea of executing death sentences against Lebanese officers impossible and not up for discussion. Instead, I insisted on finding another way out of the crisis we were entangled in. I told Assad and his delegation, “Neither the rule in Lebanon nor you are capable of enduring two things: doing nothing and executing death sentences. Both of these are extremely dangerous because they will lead to centuries-long hostility between Lebanon and Syria, between the two peoples and armies, and that is something no one wants. Therefore, a middle ground solution must be found. I am not attempting to outwit or manipulate. I am neither in the most cunning nor the strongest nor the smartest position, as the situation does not allow for that. My cards are laid out on the table before you, and there is no room for tricks.”

When I noticed that President Assad was somewhat impressed by what I said, I decided to press on and continue my tactic to its conclusion: “Lebanon cannot bear the implementation of death sentences, and I give you an example of the sentences issued against the perpetrators of the coup attempt against President Fuad Chehab at the end of 1961. At that time, some believed that death sentences should be issued against the officers who participated in the coup attempt, but President Chehab replaced the death sentences with life imprisonment on the last day of his term, later reduced, and eventually ended with a decree of amnesty, and all the convicts were released from prison. In any case, I believe it is impossible to push Lebanese judges in the Special Security Court we formed to issue death sentences. If Syrian judges insist on the death penalty, there will be a split, and the consequences of such a division will loom over both countries.”

After sensing that President Assad perceived the danger of what I said, and before requesting them to refrain from insisting on death sentences, I saw the need to provide some reassurances to the Syrians, so I added, “Of course, this means that we must take radical measures to prevent a recurrence of clashes between the Lebanese and Syrian armies, such as undertaking extensive restructuring in the army, tightening control over its leadership, working towards national consensus, and activating governmental work. I believe that, in return, the only requirement is not to accelerate the proceedings of the Mixed Investigation Commission in the Special Security Court.”

Policy of the Drawn Sword

The meeting concluded at half past twelve at night, and I spent the night in one of the hotels in Damascus. Later, I learned that President Hafez al-Assad, along with his aides led by Abdul-Halim Khaddam, held a meeting after my departure that lasted for over an hour to discuss the ideas I had presented. Prior to my return to Beirut the next morning, on the first of March, I stopped by Khaddam at ten o’clock, and he informed me that, as a result of their night deliberations with President Assad, they decided to refrain from requesting death sentences. However, he insisted that the Lebanese government should not announce this decision so as not to affect the morale of the Syrian army, which might be influenced by such an announcement. He added, “We must take advantage of the drawn sword represented by the Special Security Court and hint at death sentences to achieve certain objectives. President Sarkis should act and address matters that require decisive action.” Khaddam continued, “His Excellency, the President, tells you that he has great confidence in you. Act in a manner that preserves the dignity and morale of the Syrian army.”

On the thirteenth of March, I met with President Camille Chamoun and clarified my perspective on the army’s restructuring that had displeased him. It seemed to me, perhaps out of pragmatism, that he overlooked the issue and promised to support the reconciliation project we were working on. However, he insisted on the President’s authority to dissolve the government. Still, President Suleiman Frangieh held the biggest surprise for us. I knew he was very displeased with the transfer of Colonel Antoine Barakat from his position and the delay of some ministries and public institutions in meeting the demands he had for his supporters. I expected to spend about ten minutes with him on the fourteenth of March to brief him on the reform paper and obtain his approval. However, our meeting lasted for more than two and a half hours in his home after he vehemently rejected the proposals outlined in the draft of the national reconciliation. He said, “How can we give up and concede what we once rejected? I refused during my term to compromise on anything that weakens the presidency, and after great effort, we reached an agreement on the ‘Constitutional Document’ in February 1976, and after that, twenty thousand were killed, and losses amounted to billions. Should we go back and accept the ‘Constitutional Document’?”

As for the major surprise from President Suleiman Frangieh at that time, it was considering “federalism as the most suitable solution for Lebanon.” This suggestion hit me like a lightning bolt because it essentially meant the failure of all our efforts. After this meeting, I realized that we had made a mistake by setting the fifteenth of March as the deadline for announcing the national reconciliation project, which seemed to face many obstacles and setbacks. I decided to spend the rest of the day in my home thinking about what could be done the next day to avoid missing the opportunity to reach a national consensus.