July: Crisis Response in the Levant

By Colonel Christopher G. Libertini, USAR

For millennia Lebanon has sat upon a crossroads of civilizations, which has proved to be both a blessing and a curse for its people. Since ancient times its inhabitants have been renowned as legendary merchants and important contributors to Mediterranean civilization. During the early period of the Cold War, Lebanon flourished as a financial and cultural hub for Western investors and travelers, earning the nickname, “Switzerland of the East.” Tourists flocked to its capital city, Beirut, and affectionately referred to it as the “Paris of the Middle East.” Its ports of Tripoli and Sidon also served as important terminals for pipelines bringing precious petroleum resources from the oilfields of Iraq and Saudi Arabia to the West. While Lebanon might seem a continent away from the focus of U.S. European Command (USEUCOM), the command’s contributions over the last 70 years demonstrated a commitment to periodic peacekeeping and humanitarian actions in the eastern Mediterranean. 

Intervention of 1958 

In the mid-1950s, Lebanon’s long history of cross-cultural interactions caught up with it. Tensions were rising in the Middle East, as a growing pan-Arab nationalist movement against Israel threatened to bring a number of those nations into the Soviet Union’s orbit. Lebanon attempted to remain neutral in both the Arab-Israeli and Cold War struggles, but its diverse population made it increasingly challenging to do so. The Arab Lebanese community became increasingly opposed to Christian President Camille Chamoun, who had refused to condemn a combined Israeli, British, and French effort in 1956 to seize the Suez Canal from Egypt, which at the time was the Arab world’s leading anti-Israeli, pro-Soviet nation. 

Rumors began to spread in early 1958 that as his six-year term as president was coming to a close, Chamoun would run for a second term, an action not allowed by the existing Lebanese constitution. In May, armed rebels backed by Egypt and Syria launched attacks that threatened to bring down the government. If successful, the rebels would have pulled Lebanon into the anti-Western sphere, thereby destroying an important stabilizing presence in an increasingly tense Middle East. Although the situation posed a threat to strategic U.S. interests in the region, American President Dwight Eisenhower was reluctant to use the American military to intervene. This was a policy approach he favored throughout his presidency, preferring to rely on other elements of national power to achieve objectives whenever possible. 

That all changed on 14 July 1958. Without warning, a bloody coup brought down the government of nearby Iraq, which at the time was the only major Arab country aligned with the West. This event convinced Eisenhower that a swift, overwhelming demonstration of U.S. military power and resolve in Lebanon could prevent further destabilization in the Middle East. The USEUCOM commander, General Lauris Norstad, directed what would be the first integrated airborne-amphibious operation conducted by the U.S. military in peacetime, Operation BLUE BAT. It included two U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR) airborne battlegroups stationed in Germany, the Sixth Fleet, a Marine amphibious task force in the eastern Mediterranean, and squadrons of transports and fighter jets from U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) and other air commands. 

On the afternoon of 15 July, the initial Marine elements came ashore unopposed on the tourist-filled beaches near Beirut, and USAREUR airborne units landed four days later. Although U.S. forces encountered occasional harassing fires from rebel forces, no major engagements ensued. American diplomats brokered a meeting among government and rebel leaders that led to an agreement to hold new elections on 31 July. Lebanese General Fouad Chehab subsequently won and took office on 23 September in a peaceful transfer of power. The BLUE BAT deployment had provided the necessary stabilizing presence to allow Lebanese factions to resolve their differences through the political process rather than through violence. With the peacekeeping mission complete, USEUCOM redeployed its military personnel from Lebanon by 25 October. 

Intervention of 1982-84 

By 1976, continuing tensions among Lebanon’s many religious, ethnic, and political factions erupted into a destructive civil war that laid waste to what had been a jewel of the eastern Mediterranean. With the government’s inability to effectively control all of its territory, elements of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) began operating in southern Lebanon. Syria also inserted forces into the country to seize key terrain that could be used against Israel in the event of a future war. Threatened by this dangerous intervention, Israel launched preemptive air strikes against Syrian positions in April 1981. Tensions escalated further as the PLO began shelling northern Israel. Concerned the situation might devolve into a new Arab-Israeli War, U.S. President Ronald Reagan initiated diplomatic negotiations that resulted in a ceasefire. For the moment war had been averted. However, following the PLO’s attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador in London on 3 June 1982, Israel determined the grounds for a continued ceasefire no longer existed. Three days later the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) invaded southern Lebanon to root out PLO and Syrian forces. 

Although the original IDF mission was limited in scope, Israeli troops quickly penetrated deep into Lebanon, bottling up PLO fighters in Beirut. To prevent a wider war and further destruction of the city, the Reagan administration brokered another peace settlement. The PLO agreed to leave Beirut if a multinational force (MNF) deployed to Lebanon to protect Palestinian civilians. Israel agreed to the proposal, and the U.S., France, and Italy committed to forming the MNF. 

As part of the U.S. contribution to the MNF, the 32d Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) deployed from North Carolina to forward sites at Naval Station Rota, Spain and Naval Support Activity Naples, Italy. It would serve as the Sixth Fleet’s landing force with the mission to evacuate Americans and foreign national civilians from Lebanon and then provide the security in Beirut. USEUCOM had overall command of the operation with the Sixth Fleet overseeing efforts on-scene. The PLO withdrawal took place from 21 August-1 September with the IDF leaving two days later. With the mission complete, all MNF units departed by 8 September. 

Unfortunately, the situation in Lebanon soon unraveled once again. On 14 September, President-Elect Bashir Gemayel was assassinated by pro-Syrian militia before he could take office. As fighting escalated, the new president of Lebanon Amin Gemayel appealed for the return of the MNF to prevent a new civil war. The 32d MUA departed from Naples on 29 September to support this new MNF, but found themselves in a very different situation from their earlier deployment. Now stationed at the Beirut International Airport, they were in an area known for its widespread support for Syrian and Iranian backed factions. Nevertheless, many local residents welcomed the return of the MNF, whose presence guaranteed their security. On November 3, the Marines began an expanded mission which called for daylight presence patrols into the surrounding neighborhoods. While well-received at first, by March 1983 the MNF began encountering hostile actions from Syrian militiamen as well as PLO fighters who were infiltrating back into the country. The ambush of an Italian vehicle patrol that left one dead and nine wounded on 15 March marked a shifting tide. The following month a stolen van loaded with 2,000 pounds of explosives was driven by a terrorist into the American Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 including 17 U.S. citizens. This proved to be just a prelude of events to come. 

By September 1983, the Marines were increasingly getting sucked into the civil strife that had plagued Lebanon for years. As attacks on their positions escalated to include fires from mortars and rockets, they responded with 155mm howitzers, naval gunfire, and carrier-based air strikes. While the Marines were able to adapt to a peacekeeping mission that was becoming increasingly more kinetic, nothing could completely prepare them for what was to come next. Early on Sunday, 23 October, an explosive-laden truck driven by a pro-Iranian terrorist slammed into the MNF barracks at the airport where it exploded with the force of over 12,000 pounds of TNT. The building collapsed, killing 241 U.S. servicemen of which 220 were Marines. It was the deadliest day in Marine Corps history since the battle for Iwo Jima in 1945. 

In the months that followed, the Marines continued to respond robustly to small arms and rocket attacks, but there appeared to be no sign that the various hostile factions in Lebanon would commit to a sustained ceasefire that would lead to a shared vision of peace. President Reagan determined it would be ineffectual to continue the MNF peace mission under these circumstances and so gave the order for withdrawal. American forces turned over the defense of the Beirut airport to the Lebanese government and departed on 26 February 1984. During the 18 months of MNF operations, 238 Marines had been killed and another 151 wounded in action. 

Intervention of 2006 

Relative calm eventually returned to Lebanon, but tensions remained. In response to international pressure, Israel withdrew its forces in July 2000 from the security zone it had occupied in southern portions of the country. The area soon became a haven for anti-Israeli militants and terrorists. By 2006, these fighters had acquired perhaps as many as 13,000 short-, medium-, and long-range missiles from Iran and Syria and prepared extensively to battle the IDF if it were to return to southern Lebanon. On 12 July, they succeeded in provoking such an invasion when Iran-backed Hezbollah militants crossed into Israel and captured two Israeli soldiers conducting a routine border security patrol. The next day the IDF responded with massive retaliation. Without warning, a new Lebanese war was imminent, placing at risk several thousand Americans living in the country. 

Typically, the State Department oversees the evacuation of American citizens from foreign locations, but the sheer scale of this endeavor required the intervention of the U.S. military to plan and execute the mission. Although Lebanon now fell within the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) theater, safe haven sites used to receive the evacuees, such as Cyprus, were in the USEUCOM theater. As such the two commands worked to together to conduct the evacuation of just over 14,890 civilians. Sixth Fleet and Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) helicopters worked in concert with commercial vessels to lift the evacuees to the safe havens, where they were temporarily housed in facilities assembled by USAFE contingency response units. The evacuees were then flown to the U.S. by commercial and military aircraft. 

These three interventions across several decades demonstrated the enduring capabilities of USEUCOM to respond rapidly to crises. While each posed different challenges, the command’s service members met them with customary skill, determination, and resolve. 

Colonel Christopher Libertini is a career military intelligence officer and since 2020 has served as the command historian for the Army Reserve Element (ARE) at Fort Devens, Massachusetts which provides reserve augmentation to the USEUCOM command staff.