While the United States was supposed to have been a neutral entity in Lebanon as part of the MNF, by summer 1983 it had openly sided with the pro-Israeli Lebanese government.
To support the Lebanese military, the U.S.S. New Jersey
was authorized to shell the Druze militia and Syrian military forces in the mountains surrounding Beirut. As Colin Powell later described
the response: “When the shells started falling on the Shiites, they assumed the American ‘referee’ had taken sides against them.
And since they could not reach the battleship, they found a more vulnerable target: the exposed Marines at the airport.”
The October 23, 1983, suicide truck bombing of the Marine barracks at the Beirut International Airport would kill 241 U.S. military personnel; simultaneously, another suicide bomber killed fifty-eight French servicemen of the MNF several kilometers away. (Two weeks later, yet another truck bomb exploded in the Israeli military headquarters in Tyre, killing sixty.) ….
The Reagan administration grappled with the appropriate response against the Syrian and Iranian governments. As a “two-fer” military option, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy Richard Armitage recalled
, “we wanted to put a cruise missile into the window of the Iranian ambassador in Damascus,” although this approach was ultimately rejected.
Another idea—never pursued, but worth highlighting given the demand of many political leaders for Syrian president Hafez al-Assad to be removed from power—was developed in a NSC paper entitled, “The Destabilization of Syria.” According to David Wills’s unmatched history of the era, The First War on Terrorism: Counter-Terrorism Policy during the Reagan Administration:
“When Assad challenges Israel and the Marines in Lebanon, he knows that if Israel attacks him it cannot occupy all of Syria. Assad feels he can always retreat to the North and set up a smaller state and with stronger Alawite control. However, if Turkey is brought into the calculations of Rifaat [Assad] (the real power in Syria) and Hafez, their calculations will be totally different and would be impossible to add up without losing their power. If Syria is attacked by Turkey from the north the Alawite stronghold will be gone at the start and Assad and his supporters will have to fall back on an ocean of hateful Sunni moslems (sic) in the south where they will be eaten like lost sheep. Therefore the pressure on Syria should come from Turkey and not from the Marines and or Israel.”
The Reagan administration ultimately decided to attack the support infrastructure of the groups responsible for the Beirut bombing at the Sheik Abdullah barracks in Baalbek, Lebanon, where several hundred of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah members were based. On November 14, 1983, President Reagan approved a joint U.S.-French air raid against the barracks to be carried out two days later. What happened next is hotly disputed by Reagan administration officials, although almost all accounts concur that Secretary of Defense Weinberger refused to give the authorization order to the U.S. commander of the Sixth Fleet permitting the U.S. aircraft to leave their flight decks. The French—who did not know that the United States had abandoned them until their planes were airborne—proceeded with the airstrike. Briefed on what had happened, Reagan responded: “That’s terrible. We should have blown the daylights out of them. I just don’t understand.”
Despite the miscommunication—or direct insubordination
—the United States eventually did bomb Syrian military assets in Lebanon, although it had nothing to do with the loss of the 241 American service members….. ….. bombers were ordered to strike three sites east of Beirut, which included an ammunition depot, air-defense radars, anti-aircraft guns, and SAMs. (A Reagan administration official claimed
that the airstrikes would somehow “also encourage Lebanese forces to defend their own territory.” They didn’t.) Without offering any evidence, a Pentagon spokesperson reported that airstrikes had hit fourteen of the twenty intended targets and that “whatever was in each of the areas received significant damage.”
Despite official statements, however, the first direct combat in Lebanon between the United States and Syria was both a military and political disaster. Two of the U.S. planes were shot down either by anti-aircraft rounds and/or approximately forty SAMs; one pilot was killed, another was captured by Syrian forces, …. Furthermore, although the Pentagon claimed
that the airstrikes were ”very successful and achieved our objective, which was to prevent, through a measured response, repetition of the attacks on our reconnaissance aircraft,” that never came to pass. Syrian forces continued to target the U.S. reconnaissance flights….
A criticism of proponents of military force in Syria, Iran, or elsewhere, is that they rarely take into account recent history and how it can be instructive for likely outcomes today. Or worse, advocates often rely on myths
or mischaracterizations about earlier applications of force, particularly in their supposedly successful outcomes. Despite approximately $600 billion in defense and intelligence spending, kinetic force not only fails to achieve its intended military or political objectives, but it often makes things worse. If history can provide any guidance, it is that it is impossible to foresee the unintended consequences and lasting impact of military force.”