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The Ascendancy of Bashir Jumayyil

Emboldened by Israel's willingness to intervene militarily in Lebanon, Bashir Jumayyil exploited Israel's tacit guarantees to consolidate his position within the fractious Maronite community. On June 13, 1978, he launched a surprise attack that decimated the Marada Brigade, the pro-Syrian Christian Militia led by Tony Franjiyah (son of the former president), who was killed in the attach, and provoked the Syrians with direct attacks. In pitting his meager force of a few thousand fighters against three divisions of the Syrian Army, Jumayyil was taking a calculated gamble that Israel would come to his rescue and evict the Syrians. Syria rushed forces to Beirut and unleashed a devastating artillery attack on East Beirut, particularly the Phalangist stronghold of Al Ashrafiyah, in preparation for taking over the area. But Jumayyil's brinkmanship was vindicated. The IDF massed forces on the Golan Heights and threatened to go to war to preserve the Maronite community. To emphasize the point, Israeli jets overflew Syrian positions. The threat worked, and Syria withdrew its troops.

Once again, Jumayyil took the opportunity to strengthen his grip over the Maronites. On July 7, 1980, the Phalangists launched another surprise attack, wiping out Shamun's Militia, the Tigers. Through this process of elimination, Jumayyil emerged as the dominant Maronite military leader.

Jumayyil persevered in his plot to embroil Israel in a fullscale war with Syria. In late 1980, after a series of meetings with Begin, he reportedly obtained a secret Israeli pledge to provide a defensive umbrella against a potential Syrian air attack. This pledge virtually committed Israel to fight Syria at Junmayyil's behest, although Israel admonished the Phalangists not to attack the Syrians.

In April 1981, Jumayyil decided to put Israel's promise to the test. Syria had launched its "Program of National Reconciliation," which was designed to install Sulayman Franjiyah as president. Jumayyil found the proposition unpalatable, but he was impotent to oppose it politically. Therefore, he staged an incident in the city of Zahlah deliberately calculated to flare into a major crisis. Zahlah, the capital of Al Biqa Province in eastern Lebanon, had never been a Phalangist base; its population was primarily proSyrian Greek Orthodox, and it was about fifteen kilometers west of the Syrian border in the heart of the Syrian-occupied zone of Lebanon. Jumayyil infiltrated approximately 100 Phalangist militiamen into the city to attack Syrian positions and to shell the Syrian headquarters in the adjacent town of Shtawrah. The Syrians responded by besieging Zahlah. Jumayyil then called an urgent meeting with Begin and convinced him that the Syrians intended to follow through on the siege with an all-out attack on the Christian heartland. Although Syrian president Hafiz al Assad had told Jumayyil he would lift the siege if the Phalangists evacuated the city, Jumayyil concealed this point from Begin and instead urged Israel to honor its promise and launch an air strike against the Syrians.

On April 28, the Israeli cabinet convened and authorized a limited air strike, but it did so over the strident objections of Israel's intelligence chiefs, who suspected that the crisis was a Phalangist ploy. Israeli fighters carried out the raid and downed two Syrian helicopter troop transports on Jabal Sannin, a strategic mountain overlooking Zahlah.

Data as of December 1987