The intractable war, which dated back to 1975 and made “Beirut” a 1980s watchword for conflict, had boiled down* to two rival governments: a Maronite military government based in East Beirut under the leadership of Michel Aoun, and the Syrian-sponsored Muslim government in West Beirut putatively headed by Selim al-Hoss. Over the course of 1989-1990 Aoun’s “war of liberation” against the occupying Syrian army all but emptied the city of Beirut.
Thanks to a complex political schism, Aoun was also ensconced in the city’s presidential palace from which he issued decrees denouncing and rejecting the political settlement that was supposed to return the country to normalcy.
As this latter operation involved the U.S. attacking a Muslim oil-producing state with military resources it deployed for that purpose the politically sensitive sands of a neighboring Muslim oil-producing, the U.S. spent the last months of 1990 working the Middle East diplomatic circuit to bring the region’s governments on board for the impending bout of ultraviolence.
Syria’s particular carrot was the green light to finish off Aoun — who, simultaneously, had of course been deprived of aid from the now-preoccupied Iraqis. This the Syrian army did with a massive attack on Beirut’s presidential palace beginning at 7 in the morning on October 13th. The palace was overcome by 10 that morning, but resistance continued elsewhere throughout the day from pro-Aoun militias who had not received word of that gentleman’s surrender and escape to the French embassy.**
Several hundred people were killed during the onslaught into pro-Aoun enclaves. An unknown number of these ballparked to around two or three hundred are thought to have been killed by summary execution after capture (or after intentional rounding-up). A Lebanese nurse claimed that at the nearby village of Dahr al-Wahsh “I counted between 75 and 80 [executed] … Most of them had a bullet in the back of their heads or in their mouth. The corpses still carried the mark of cords around their wrists.” Other captured Lebanese fighters were reportedly deported to Syria and never heard from again.
There are several other atrocity accounts collected here. This two-part documentary on the end of the Lebanese civil war available on YouTube has several participants’ perspectives (including Aoun’s) on the chaotic situation marking the war’s last days: 1, 2.
* This is quite a gross oversimplification of a fractious civil conflict in which innumerable blocs continually rearranged their alliances.
“I had a chart on my wall of the constantly proliferating militias — four dozen or so by the time I left in 1985 — and their constantly shifting alliances and enmities,” one former Beirut denizen wrote recently. “Allies one day could be trying to kill one another the next, even within sects, over issues that had digressed far from their common cause.”
** Aoun went into exile in France, returning in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution finally drove the still-occupying Syrians out of Lebanon. He has served in the Lebanese parliament since that time, leading the country’s largest Christian party.
On this date in 1800 — which was the same date they buried his victim — the 23-year-old student Suleiman al-Halabi was put to death in Cairo for assassinating French General Jean Baptiste Kleber.
Casualty of the brief Napoleonic adventure in Egypt, Kleber had received supreme command of the expedition when Napoleon himself returned to France the previous year — a mission which involved running the English naval blockade that trapped the Armee d’Orient.
Kleber, a product of the French Revolution’s military meritocracy who had attained his rank capably suppressing the Vendee royalists, was certainly up to the martial tasks at hand. He routed a larger Ottoman-English-Mamluk force in March of 1800, and then smashed a revolt in Cairo.
But the Napoleonic invasion often figures as a periodization marker for this region: the germ of liberalism and nationalism that would tear apart the Ottoman Empire and set the scene for a recognizably modern Middle East. So it’s somewhat fitting that Kleber would be undone by a figure who could be lifted from the evening news,* the anti-occupation insurgent.
He had been in Cairo to study, but after a return visit home was induced by the Turks to attend himself to punishing the invader instead. He then made his way back to to Egypt where, disguising himself as a beggar, where he was able to approach the general innocuously and dagger him to death.
The French, of course, had just a few years before this point introduced its most distinctive execution device in place of the ghastly old methods, and employed it with egalite for commoner and king alike. Nor was France, as an imperial power, reluctant about exporting its invention to the everycornerofearth.
But in this particular instance, the French decided to prioritize, er, cultural sensitivity.
The committee, after carrying through the trial with all due solemnity and process, thought it necessary to follow Egyptian customs in its application of punishment; it condemned the assassin to be impaled after having his right hand burned; and three of the guilty sheikhs to be beheaded and their bodies burned.
The “guilty sheikhs” in question were men to whom the killer had confided — not his plan, exactly, but the fact that he was on a jihad mission. Hey, close enough.
As for Suleiman al-Halabi himself,
The executioner Barthèlemy sat down on Suleiman’s belly, drew a knife from his pocket, and made a large incision to widen the rectum, then hammered the point of the stake into it with his mallet. Then he bound the patient’s arms and legs, raised the stake the air and mounted it in a prepared hole. Suleiman lived for four hours, and he had lived longer save that, during the absence of Barthèlemy, a soldier gave him a drink which caused his immediate death.
(Impaling victims could live for agonizing days, but the water caused Suleiman, mercifully, to quickly bleed out.)
Not content with going all Vlad the Impaler, the French then paid homage to the invasion’s scientific sub-theme** by shipping Suleiman’s remains back to France for use as an anthropological exhibit.† His skull still remains at the Musee de l’Homme to this day. What’s left in his homeland(s) is a martyr’s memory.
According to the scholar al-Jabarti, whose chronicle is one of the principal sources on this episode, the investigation indicated that Suleiman undertook his mission for no ideology save his family’s desperate need of the purse the Porte was willing to offer. But in the ensuing decades’ growth of nationalism and, eventually, anti-colonialism, the brave young Muslim dying on a spike to slay the French commander could not help but be viewed in an exalted light. (Notably, at the acme of Arab nationalism, the Egyptian writer Alfred Farag celebrated Suleiman as an avatar of resistance in a 1965 play. “I do not kill for revenge,” Farag’s Suleiman avers — and when pressed for the reason, he has a one-word reply: “Justice.”)
* Indeed, the name has been in the news: there’s a Suleiman al-Halabi neighborhood in Aleppo that has seen fighting during the ongoing Syrian civil war. Since it’s even a Kurdish neighborhood one can’t but suspect that it’s named for the man featured in this post; however, I haven’t been able to establish that with certainty. If any reader knows, a comment would be most welcome.
On this date in 1098, Antioch’s besieged Muslim defenders martyred a Crusader knight who refused to secure a ransom for himself.
The armies of the First Crusade had pressed their way through Anatolia and had laid to siege these past five months the ancient Syrian city of Antioch. (It’s in modern Turkey now, where it’s known as Antakya.)
the Turks led to the top of an Antiochian wall a noble knight, Rainald Porchet [alternatively, Rainaud or Reynaud Porquet], whom they had imprisoned in a foul dungeon. They then told him that he should inquire from the Christian pilgrims how much they would pay for his ransom before he lost his head.
To the shock of the garrison, Porchet went all clash-of-civilizations on this routine diplomacy.
From the heights of the wall Rainald addressed the leaders: “My lords, it matters not if I die, and I pray you, my brothers, that you pay no ransom for me. But be certain in the faith of Christ and the Holy Sepulchre that God is with you and shall be forever. You have slain all the leaders and the bravest men of Antioch; namely, twelve emirs and fifteen thousand noblemen, and no one remains to give battle with you or to defend the city.”
The Turks asked what Rainald had said. The interpreter replied: “Nothing good concerning you was said.”
The emir, Yaghi Siyan, immediately ordered him to descend from the wall and spoke to him through an interpreter: “Rainald, do you wish to enjoy life honorably with us?”
Rainald replied: “How can I live honorably with you without sinning?”
The emir answered: “Deny your God, whom you worship and believe, and accept Mohammed and our other gods. If you do so we shall give to you all that you desire such as gold, horses, mules, and many other worldly goods which you wish, as well as wives and inheritances; and we shall enrich you with great lands.”
Yaghi Siyan was obliged to make this proposition of apostasy to his prisoner as a prelude to executing him.
Rainald replied to the emir: “Give me time for consideration;” and the emir gladly agreed. Rainald with clasped hands knelt in prayer to the east; humbly he asked God that He come to his aid and transport with dignity his soul to the bosom of Abraham.
When the emir saw Rainald in prayer, he called his interpreter and said to him: “What was Rainald’s answer?”
The interpreter then said: “He completely denies your god. He also refuses your worldly goods and your gods.”
After hearing this report, the emir was extremely irritated and ordered the immediate beheading of Rainald, and so the Turks with great pleasure chopped off his head: Swiftly the angels, joyfully singing the Psalms of David, bore his soul and lifted it before the sight of God for Whose love he had undergone martyrdom.
Rainald got himself a starring role in the Chanson d’Antioche, an epic poem celebrating the Crusade, for this pious self-sacrifice. We can only presume that his name- and numberless compatriots in the dungeons, who also paid the price for Rainald’s obstinacy, were satisfied with suffering the same fate but only getting a role in the chorus.
Then the emir, in a towering rage because he could not make Rainald turn apostate, at once ordered all the pilgrims in Antioch to be brought before him with their hands bound bend their backs. When they had come before him; he ordered them stripped stark naked, and as they stood in the nude he commanded that they be bound with ropes in a circle. He then had chaff, firewood, and hay piled around them, and finally as enemies of God he ordered them put to the torch.
The Christians, those knights of Christ, shrieked and screamed so that their voices resounded in heaven to God for whose love their flesh and bones were cremated; and so they all entered martyrdom on this day wearing in heaven their white stoles before the Lord, for Whom they had so loyally suffered in the reign of our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom is the honor and glory now and throughout eternity. Amen.
In these heady early months of the Crusades, when the enterprise stumbled from near-disaster to miraculous success, the renown of Porchet et al was clinched by the siege’s success in early June — just days ahead of the arrival of a Turkish relief force which thereafter had to content itself with besieging the now-Crusader-held city.
When this second siege was repelled with the help of the Christians’ convenient — staged, one might think — “discovery” of the Holy Lance of Antioch, everyone had to know that the Big Guy was truly on their side.
On this date in 1949, Syrian President Husni al-Za’im and his Prime Minister Mohsen Berazi were seized in a military coup, conducted to a court martial, and immediately put to death.
An ethnic Kurd, al-Za’im had cut his teeth in the armed forces of two different empires — the Ottoman and the French — before Syria attained independence following World War II.
The ambitious al-Za’im had got out from under a Vichy-era prison sentence for corruption and established himself as army chief of staff in time for the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
Syrian forces’ underwhelming performance in this campaign set the stage for what would follow — both for al-Za’im and, arguably, down to the present day.
Syria actually sported an open and democratic polity; it had a successful election in 1947. But the civilian leaders were essentially wealthy landowners who, having successfully led the movement for independence, had scant agenda for actual governance save enriching themselves and their allies. It was “an edifice of nepotism and mismanagement … [a] creaking network of family patronage and administrative venality.”
A stagnant economy, kleptocratic elite, and political malaise came into sharp focus with the debacle of the Arab-Israeli War. Arab commander Fawzi al-Qawuqji would charge that feckless Arab elites ran the war “from behind their office desks, and in accordance with their own personal interests, ambitions, and whims.”
This undergraduate thesis makes a case for the Za’im coup as the turning point normalizing and privileging military intervention in Syrian politics. This was the fear of a young American diplomat in Syria, who reckoned American support for the coup “the stupidest, most irresponsible action a diplomatic mission like ours could get itself involved in … we’ve started a series of these things that will never end.”
So it was that on this date the next domino toppled, a counter-coup that ended al-Za’im’s installment of the dictatorship series most abruptly.
Colonel Sami Hinnawi, an officer who had served under Husni Zaim, then sat as president of a “higher war council” of 12 senior officers, which tried the President and Prime Minister and condemned them to death. Sentence was carried out at once at the Mezza fortress near Damascus. Mohsen Berazi was shot first. He protested, although Husni Zaim, who stood by waiting his turn, urged him to be quiet.
-London Times, Aug. 15, 1949
Hinnawi last another year before a relative of Mohsen Berazi assassinated him in revenge, and on it went. It was during Syria’s sequence of unstable military juntas in the 1950s that the young Hafez al-Assad earned his stripes in the Syrian air force.
Assad would eventually execute a much more permanent takeover, rule the country for 30 years, and upon his death in 2000, bequeath leadership to his son Bashar — a fellow who, as of this writing, stands in some danger of winning an entry of his own in these pages should his ruthless crackdown against pro-democracy protesters prove unavailing.
On this date in 1965, Israel’s greatest spy suffered an ignominious public hanging in Martyrs Square, Damascus.
The signage swaddling the body denounces his crimes.
Eliahu Ben Saul Cohen — you can call him Eli(e) — was an Egyptian Jew who got recruited by Israeli intelligence to put his Arabic credentials to use in the cloak and dagger game.
You could say he’d found his calling.
After a spell establishing his cover story credentials in Argentina, he “returned” to Syria posing as a prodigal returning emigrant. There, he became the Zionist Richard Sorge.
Brazenly infiltrating the ascendant Ba’ath party and Syrian elite circles as wealthy businessman “Kamel Amin Thaabet”, Cohen piped years of high-quality intelligence to Israel from the very pinnacle of its enemy’s power structure.
(As described in this account, Eli’s own brother, another Mossad agent, was at one point charged with deciphering the spy’s communiques — thereby accidentally catching up with the family business.)
The trusted Eli Cohen in a snapshot with Syrian officials in the Golan Heights, overlooking Israel.
Cohen’s information on Syrian positions in the Golan has been credited with helping Israel win the Six-Day War in 1967.
But he wasn’t around to see it.
By that time, Syrian and Soviet intelligence had finally traced the damaging radio transmissions to “Kamel’s” apartment. He was purportedly — the matter is disputed, and smacks of hagiography — so influential and well-trusted at that point that he was on the verge of being named Deputy Minister of Defense.
Instead, he had a future in the martyr business.
A few books about Eli Cohen
After Cohen’s January 1965 arrest, events moved with implacable dispatch, and neither spy swaps nor diplomatic arm-twisting would avail an agent so embarrassingly, damagingly accomplished. Thousands turned out to cheer the spy’s public hanging, or gawk at the body as it remained hanging throughout the morning. Thousands more watched the live telecast of the execution.
(Six Syrians drew prison sentences for their parts in Cohen’s spy ring.)
Israel is still on about getting his body back from the Syrians. Whether or not that ever happens, the man lives on as a hero for his side. His story is the subject of the 1987 TV movie The Impossible Spy.
On this date in 1960 — just two days after they had been sentenced — Saleh Safadi, Mohammed Hindawi, Lt. Husham Dabbas, and Karim Shaqra were hanged in Amman’s Hussein Mosque Square for assassinating Jordan’s prime minister earlier that year.
[i]t may be that the bomb plot which cost Hazza Majali his life was also aimed at the King himself. The first bomb, which killed the prime minister, was followed by a second explosion at the scene less than forty minutes later. Had the King followed through on his initial intention to visit the bomb site, he might well have been caught in the second blast.
Though the bombings didn’t get King Hussein, they claimed 11 other lives besides Majali’s.
Syria and the UAR were busily subverting U.S.-backed Jordan, and in this venture they enjoyed dangerously considerable popular support within Jordan; Majali in particular was “regarded by some Jordanians — and particularly Palestine refugees — as a virtual tool of the Western powers.” (New York Times, Aug. 30, 1960)
So it was a dangerous situation, and King Hussein did well to escape those years un-blown-up himself.
Several weeks of brinksmanship followed Majali’s assassination, with Jordanian troops massed on the Syrian border. Matters stopped short of outright war, but Nasser, Syria, and the UAR were all explicitly accused of this operation and others at the resulting trial of the assassins in December: the plot was supposed to have originated in Damascus, been paid for in Damascus, and used bombs shipped from Damascus.
Eleven in all were condemned to death, but seven of those sentences were given in absentia to suspects who had absconded to Nasser’s dominions.
* In response to the Egypt-Syria union, the kindred Hashemite rulers of Jordan and Iraq had formed the Arab Federation of Iraq and Jordan. That arrangement was even shorter-lived than the UAR, because the Iraqi Hashemites were almost immediately overthrown. You can get Jordan’s official take on those perilous years here.
On this date in 1098, the Turkish commander of Antioch put to flight by the invading Crusader army was seized and beheaded as a trophy of the victory.
Yaghi Siyan, the Seljuk governor known to European chroniclers as Acxianus, Gratianus or Cassianus, found himself in a bad way when Christian forces of the First Crusade laid siege to Antioch late in 1097.
Although the Europeans were famished, they maintained the siege for the best part of a year, finally surging into Antioch on the night of June 2-3, 1098, with the help (as so often the case in siege warfare) of an inside man who agreed to open a gate.
Yaghi Siyan showed unparalleled courage and wisdom, strength and judgment. If all the Franks who died had survived they would have overrun all the lands of Islam. He protected the families of the Christians in Antioch and would not allow a hair of their head to be touched.
After the siege had been going on for a long time the Franks made a deal with one of the men who were responsible for the towers. He was a cuirass-maker called Ruzbih [or Firuz, or Firouz] whom they bribed with a fortune in money and lands. He worked in the tower that stood over the river-bed, where the river flowed out of the city into the valley. The Franks sealed their pact with the cuirass-maker, God damn him! and made their way to the water-gate. They opened it and entered the city. Another gang of them climbed the tower with ropes. At dawn, when more than 500 of them were in the city and the defenders were worn out after the night watch, they sounded their trumpets … Panic seized Yaghi Siyan and he opened the city gates and fled in terror, with an escort of thirty pages.
Yaghi-Siyan fell from his horse in flight; his
companions tried to lift him back into the saddle, but they could not get him to sit up, and so left him for dead while they escaped. He was at his last gasp when an Armenian* shepherd came past, killed him, cut off his head and took it to the Franks at Antioch.**
A borderline “execution” at best, but close enough for our purposes; the Turkish garrison Yaghi-Siyan left behind to face the music was receiving similar treatment from the Crusaders, as were civilians, Muslim and Christian alike.
The month following Yaghi-Siyan’s death was a strange and pivotal one in the strange and pivotal history of the Crusades.
The city of Antioch was almost immediately invested again — by a relief force of Turks who had arrived too late. Facing seemingly long odds on the other end of the siege, and still near to starvation, the Crusaders discovered the “Holy Lance”† and managed to repel the Turks, enabling the upstart Christian army to march on to Jerusalem.
* Having had their homelands overrun by the Seljuks during the preceding decades, there was no small tension in the Armenian relationship with their Turkish rulers; the man who betrayed the city was himself said to be an Armenian who had been forced to convert to Islam. The account of the city’s capture by Raymond d’Aguiliers reports that our day’s victim “was captured and beheaded by some Armenian peasants, and his head was brought to us. This, I believe, was done by the ineffable disposition of God, that he who had caused many men of this same race to be beheaded should be deprived of his head by them.”
** Different accounts give slightly different versions of how Yaghi-Siyan came to his end — whether thrown from his horse or caught attempting to take refuge — and the station in life of the Armenian (everyone seems to agree on the nationality of the executioner) who decapitated him.
† The spear supposed to have pierced Christ on the cross, whose discovery was directed by Peter the Hermit at the direction, he said, of St. Andrew. Ibn al-Athir had a more skeptical take:
a holy man who had great influence over them, a man of low cunning … proclaimed that the Messiah had a lance buried in the Qusyan, a great building in Antioch … Before saying this he had buried a lance in a certain spot and concealed all trace of it. He exhorted them to fast and repent for three days, and on the fourth day he led them all to the spot with their soldiers and workmen, who dug everywhere and found the lance as he had told them.
On this date in 1976, three Abu Nidal terrorists were hanged before the Hotel Semiramis in Damascus, barely 24 hours after they had entered it and taken 90 hostages in a bid to win release of Palestinian prisoners.
Palestinians Muhammad al-Barqawi and Mouatassem Jayyoushi and Iraqi Jabbar Darwish suffered Syria’s first public execution since an accused Israeli spy more than a decade before — and as the late Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad had pledged, justice was swift and ruthless.
The security of the citizen is sacred. We shall not be soft in this matter. We shall hit back very hard and we denounce this criminal action committed by the gang, which acted as if it was in Israel.
They were the surviving 75% of a quartet of gunmen who early the previous morning had seized the hotel, barricaded themselves on the fifth floor, and attempted to make their trade. Plainly, it didn’t quite work out; the attempt precipitated a battle with Syrian troops which saw the fourth terrorist killed, along with four of the hostages. The Supreme State Security Court condemned the captured men to death overnight; the sentence was carried out between 6:00 and 6:30 the next morning.
New York Times coverage of the raid and the execution is unfortunately behind the paper’s paid-login firewall, but a photo of the execution shows onlookers ringing a single wooden frame for what must have been a short-drop hanging. An unused fourth noose, possibly symbolically present for the killed fourth terrorist (or possibly not; there’s no explicit comment on it), hangs beside the dead men.
So why the grievance? That June — “Black June,” to the Palestinians — Syria had bailed on hard-line Palestinians and entered the Lebanese Civil War on the side of Phalangist Christians,* just as they were on the verge of being overrun. It was the second time in six years that a neighboring Arab power had turned its guns on Palestinians. (In 1970, Jordan had expelled the Palestine Liberation Organization in “Black September.” Lots of black in the Palestinian annals.)
And why the Iraqi, among the hanged?
Palestinian terrormeister Abu Nidal had hung out his shingle in Iraq, then under the control of a rising young dictator destined for the gallows himself, but who grasped the opportunist potential of backing the Palestinian cause while states like Jordan and Syria visibly sold it out. Television crews had a few words in edgewise with the doomed men the evening before their hanging, and they claimed to have trained for their abortive mission in Iraq.
On this date in 1916, a landmark and a holiday — and a founding story of national betrayal — were born with the Ottoman Empire’s hanging separatist nationalists simultaneously in Damascus and Beirut.
The lightning-rod British journalist Robert Fisk has referenced this event numerous times. Here’s his description, focusing on the Beirut location:
Prior to the First World War, 33 Arabs in what is now Lebanon and was then Syria had appealed to the French consul in Beirut to help them to gain independence from the Turks – or at least offer French protection.
The letters — from both Muslims and Christians, one from a Palestinian and another from a senior officer in the Ottoman army — were written in secret and duly reached the consul. But when France broke off relations with the Sublime Porte on the outbreak of war, the diplomat — rather than pack those subversive letters off to his new residence in Egypt — hid them in the abandoned consulate.
And so it came to pass that the local French-language interpreter at the consulate, imprisoned in Damascus, sought to gain his freedom with Ahmed Jemal Pasha, commander of the Turkish Fourth Army in Syria, by betraying to him the exact location where the consul had hidden the documents. Ottoman security agents then broke into the consulate — which was supposed to be under the protection of the still-neutral United States — and found the incriminating letters. Jemal Pasha’s fury was now directed against these treacherous letter writers with Saddam-like fury.
They were dragged from their homes, taken to the hill town of Aley, brutally tortured and sentenced to be hanged by a drum-head military court. And hanged they duly were, only a few feet from the spot where the sea will now wash up to the square and scarcely 50 metres from the tomb where Rafiq Hariri now lies. A priest was hanged in his robes. The Ottoman officer went to his death in full military uniform.
And three days after the last batch of Lebanese patriots were hanged in 1916, François Georges Picot signed his infamous secret agreement with Sir Mark Sykes to divide up the Middle East, taking Syria for France — and Palestine for the Brits — which would ensure that the French government rather than an independent Lebanese government took over Lebanon.
Now here’s the rub. Not only had every leading Lebanese patriot been liquidated just before the Sykes-Picot agreement. But the French diplomat who had shamefully left those fatal letters behind in his consulate in Beirut was – wait for it – the very same François Georges Picot.
It is as martyrs that this day’s victims are best known, rather than their particular individual achievements. But Abdul-Karim al-Khalil had the day’s picturesque exit; just before he kicked away his own ladder, denying the executioner the pleasure, he declared:
O paradise of my country, carry our feelings of brotherly love to every Lebanese, to every Syrian, to every Arab, tell them of our tragic end and tell them: “For your freedom we have lived and for your independence we are dying!”
As a result of this day’s dealings, May 6 is known in both countries as Martyrs’ Day — an apt occasion for renewing the two states’ ties — and both Beirut and Damascus have a Martyrs’ Square. This is the monument in Beirut: