Damour, gateway to totalitarianism

This op-ed was originally published in French by Ici Beyrouth on January 20, 2022. The original can be found here.

By Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon

As we pay tribute and commemorate the victims on this 46th anniversary of the Damour massacre, it is legitimate to pose the question how the fall of this Syriac Maronite city could have affected the fate of Lebanon as a whole to such a disastrous extent. After the complete destruction of this Lebanese city south of Beirut in January 1976, nothing is like before. It is as if the whole south coast has taken a new path, now with a different face.

Damour was the pivot of this coastal region stretching from Beirut to Saïda. A city of 25,000, at a time when Lebanon had only three million inhabitants. It had no less than seven hospitals, several public and private schools, and as many as eight churches. Damour was to this coastline what Jezzine was to the southern mountains, and Zahlé to the Bekaa. But above all, it was the main artery between the capital Beirut and the south of the country with the major highway passing through its territory. This is the real reason Damour had to be destroyed. The capture of the Quarantina neighbourhood by the Christian militias was just a pretext for carrying out the attack.


Image: Ici Beyrouth

Long before the takeover of Quarantina, for several months, offenses and small attacks on Christian sites in the area took place. But central Damour had to be crushed in its entirety, because that would enable taking control of the entire southern half of the country. From January 9, 1976, the Palestinians, especially those affiliated with the Syrian regime, cut off the water supply and electricity to the city, while also hindering access to the Red Cross. Between 13 and 16 January, then Minister of Defense Camille Chamoun, himself imprisoned in the area and targeted with bombardments, ordered the intervention of the air force. This was the last chance to save Damour and, with it, Lebanon’s future as a sovereign nation. However, the ministerial order was blocked on January 16 by Prime Minister Rachid Karamé. On January 20, 1976, five thousand Palestinians from Yasser Arafat’s Fatah and from the Palestinian Ba’ath faction As-Sa’iqa, a militia created and controlled by Syria, launched an attack on Damour under the command of Damascus.

The number of civilians killed in the bombings and massacres is estimated at about five to six hundred people, many of them children. Bodies were mutilated, dismembered and beheaded. Churches and cemeteries desecrated. The city was razed to the ground. Entire families were wiped out. The Canaan’s, the Merhi’s, and the families of Eid, Abdalla, Makne and others were decimated. Some Lebanese army helicopters tried to evacuate the families who had managed to leave the city. Most of the survivors managed to reach the railway and from there the shore. They were able to flee in boats and sloops to northern Beirut.

The gathering of Syriac Maronites from Damour on the railway while awaiting evacuation by sea to the north coast. Image: Ici Beyrouth

The “Maronite coast”

After the events, the region known as the “Maronite coast”, which stretched from Saida to Haret-Hreik, had completely disappeared. Jiyyé, Saadiyat, Damour, Neemeh, Khaldé and so many other villages and settlements were either forcibly emptied, decimated or drowned in a linear megalopolis that completely transformed the landscape and the identity of this southern part of the country.

The fall of Damour meant the disappearance of the “Maronite coast” from geography and history. A new era was dawning, an era of militias controlled by totalitarian powers which came to replace the country of the Cedars after having exterminated its population.

The gloomy slogan “the road to Jerusalem leads through Jounieh” signaled that the same fate awaited the north coast. The Damour massacre was only the beginning of a process to be carried out according to a clear strategy throughout the whole Lebanese territory, and which consisted in bringing down Maronite strongholds, villages, and key positions in urban centers.

This sinister plan of the totalitarian powers necessitated the transformation of the socio-geographical composition and landscape, aimed to create a new geopolitical reality. And everything and everyone was of use to achieve this: Palestinians, Japanese and Italian Red Brigades, mercenaries and fanatics from countries far away as Libya, Somalia, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. They all made their way across this peaceful Mediterranean coastline and through its chief city, Damour.

Once the agglomeration was subjugated, the surrounding hamlets and villages crumbled with it. This created a new region of linear urbanization that served as a supply route for the present and future totalitarian militias. The mission of the Syrian occupier was to prevent the return of the local population. This endured for thirty long years between 1976-2005. This provided the Syrian regime with ample time and space to compose a new society instead, on a scale several times larger.

The rescue of the survivors of Damour using makeshift boats. Image: Ici Beyrouth

A push towards Beirut

The new totalitarian power that supplanted the Palestinians had embedded itself in south Lebanon, between Saïda and the international border. It could only take Beirut by expanding on the coast north of Saïda and by establishing a new socio-geographical reality there. This linear city stretches from the capital to the south and now serves as a vital artery for the Iranian stronghold that occupies Haret-Hreik and the rest of Beirut’s southern suburbs. It provided the stronghold for the militia with the essential vigor to be able to continue its progressive advance first in West Beirut, then in the eastern and northern sectors. If the road to Jerusalem theoretically passed through Jounieh, that of Jounieh incontestably passed through Damour.

It is a grave mistake to think that this succession of events was only by chance, chaos, the vagaries of war or the displacement of refugees. At the time, proto-Hezbollah militias received their weapons and military training in Palestinian camps. As much as their origins and their ideologies separated them, their common strategy in the face of a common enemy – Lebanon and what it stands for – united them.

Lebanon, open to the world, the West, and to its neighbors… Lebanon which, despite all its defects, embodies in this part of the world the values ​​of diversity, culture, human rights, humanism and universalism, this Lebanon represented and still represents an obstacle which must be removed according to the ideologies of totalitarian regimes. Whether Arabist Nasserist, leftist Marxist or Iranian Islamist ideologies, all passed through Damour to reach Beirut and take control over all of Lebanon.

Dr Amine Jules Iskandar is an architect and the former president of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur LevnonAmine Jules Iskandar has written several articles on the Syriac Maronites, their language, culture, and history. You can follow him @Amineiskandar2

For the article in French see Ici BeyrouthFor the article in Spanish see Maronitas.org.

The views expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.

Also read from the same author:

The Soul of Resistance

The Audacity to Question the Base

Neutrality and Federalism

You have to know how to die to be able to live

A Port, a City, and a Mountain

Language in the Formation of Nation States

“KAFNO”: The Genocide on the Christians of Mount Lebanon during the First World War

The Mysterious Origins of the Language of the Maronites