Like the other nations we’ve visited so far during our whirlwind tour of West Asia and the Middle East, Lebanon has a history that is thousands of years long, features many unexpected narrative twists and turns and, sadly, tells of recent unfortunate upheaval. The land we now know as Lebanon has always has such potential for being a forward-thinking political, economic and artistic hub of the region, and for many centuries, especially when it was the home base of the maritime merchant Phoenicians, it was. For the last several hundred years though, even as far back as a thousand years ago when the Crusaders
paid the region a brutal visit, Lebanon has endured conflict after conflict. All the religious, political and economic class disagreements within Lebanon–some home grown,
some more or less a work of outside powers–came to a head during the seemingly never-ending 15 year Civil War (1975-1990). To get a sense of what happened in the to make for such as mess–why so many sides? why so much long-term fighting?–let’s start way back in the past with a bunch of expensive snails.
Years and years and years ago the land we now know as Lebanon was home to the Phoenicians, a culture–or rather, series of interrelated cultures that originated from the area known as the Levant–that took pride for several thousand years on seafaring and trading, especially from about 1550 to 300 B.C. when the region’s traders were most dominant. The ancient Greeks called people in Levant the “traders in purple” because they had a monopoly on a special purple die made from the Murex snail and often used as a pigment for royal garments. (“Phoenician” comes from the Ancient Greek word for purple.) The Phoenicians are generally credited with being the first state-level society to use a written alphabet, introducing the concept to the Greeks, who made good use of writing as they conquered the ancient Western world.
The Phoenicians chose the land of Canaan (now Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and Western Jordan) as their main base from which to trade goods by ship around the Mediterranean. Though they did dominate numerous trading bases throughout the region, such as Carthage in what is now Tunisia and Cadiz in what is now Spain, the Phoenicians were known less for conquering lands than they were for exploring them, bringing back elements from cultures all around the Mediterranean to their own city-states. From their start the Phoenician capitals Byblos and then Tyre (both located in present-day Lebanon) were relatively open-minded multicultural trading hubs.
The Phoenicians eventually declined after their land faced Persian, then Greek, then eventually Roman invasion. The Romans ruled from about 100 AD, eventually spreading Christianity, at least until the Umayyad Arabs and Islam came in the 7th century. For several hundred years in the Middle Ages, Lebanon was a primary battleground between Christian Crusaders and Islamic empires. Though the great Saladin was not able to oust the Crusaders from Lebanon, Egyptian Mamluk Sultans finally expelled the invaders in the late 13th century. When the Egyptians arrived not everyone converted to Islam; Lebanon remained home to many Maronite Christians and also to Druze, whose faith is an Islamic-influenced “Unitarian” mix of several monotheistic “Abrahamic” religions.
In fact, while the Ottomans ruled Lebanon from 1516 until the end of World War I they let a Druze family, the Maans, take power. The Maans gave way to the Shihab family, who, though related to the Maans, were first Sunni Muslim and then Maronite Christian. During this time there were several pushes for Lebanese independence, and the intensely bearded Bashir Shihab II even succeeded in joining the Egyptians to kick out the Ottomans in 1831. The Ottomans returned with the help of the British to oust Bashir II 1840.
During Bashir II’s rule the Maronites had become more wealthy and powerful than the Druze. The Ottomans (who generally supported the Druze) and other colonial powers, like the British (who supported the Druze) and the French (who supported the Maronites), exerted their influence in Lebanon by fueling the internal struggle. During some particularly harsh Maronite-Druze fighting in the 1860s the Druze forced the Maronites out of Beirut, which had become Lebanon’s most powerful city. The Congress of Europe even empowered French troops to land in Lebanon to begrudgingly helped maintain Druze control.
After the Ottoman Empire collapsed in World War I, the League of Nations gave France a mandate to control both Lebanon and Syria. The French tinkered with the borders and ultimately expanded the mainly Maronite and Druze Lebanon to include lands with many more Muslims, making the Maronites a substantially smaller part of the population than they used to be and turning the Druze into very much of a minority. The French then instituted a type of government known as “confessionalism,” which allocates political power to a nation’s religious or ethnic communities accorded to their percentage of the population. How could such a seemingly reasonable system go wrong? Well….
Lebanon’s confessionalism dictated that the president was required to be Christian (in
practice, Maronite), the prime minister Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament as Shiite Muslim. (Check out this very basic primer on the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims.) The seats in parliament were allotted, according to the 1932
census, according to a 6:5 Christian to Muslim ratio. For a while this scheme actually seemed to work. Lebanon became independent in 1943 and prospered economically. Tourists began to visit, and the country developed a reputation as a politically and social progressive “Switzerland of the East.” (Beirut’s nickname was “Paris of the middle East.”)
Of course there were some difficult times. After the Arab nations, including Lebanon, lost the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, over a hundred thousand Palestinian refugees ended up in Southern Lebanon. The ruling Lebanese Christians, fearing the Muslim influx would change the nation’s demographics and give them less political power in their confessionalistic setup, didn’t allow refugees to work, travel or engage in formal politics, which led to increased Maronite/Muslim tension. In 1958 Lebanese Muslims rebelled against the Western-leaning Maronite-led government which refused to join Egypt and Syria in the newly-formed United Arab Republic. When the United States sent 5,000 Marines to prop up the government the insurrection ended. Then, in 1967, after the “Six Day War” with Israel, which Lebanon didn’t formally enter, resulted in the Palestinians losing even more of their territory, the Palestinian Liberation Organization under Yasser Arafat began to use Southern Lebanon as a base from which to attack Israel. After Jordan
expelled the PLO in 1970 it moved its headquarters to Beirut. Several hundred thousand
Palestinian refugees now lived in Lebanon; the PLO’s army had more soldiers than Lebanon’s. Political and ethnic pressure within Lebanon increased exponentially, and in 1975 the country exploded into civil war.
THE LEBANESE CIVIL WAR:
Looking at a post on a blog called Reasons and Opinions entitled “The Lebanese
Civil War for Dummies” gives on a good sense of how confusing the fifteen year (1975-1990) Lebanese Civil War became. The page, which intends= to simplify the struggle, lists events in the Civil War in mainly chronological phases. Ten of them. And that’s as simple as it gets.
In a forget-a-thousand-years-of-history, modern-to-the-moment sense the Lebanese Civil War began in the early ’70s when the militant Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) moved its base of operations to Beirut and Israel attacked to decimate it. The PLO’s presence and Israel’s subsequent invasion caused long-standing feuds among Lebanese Maronite Christians, Sunni and Shiite Arabs and Druze to explode into violence. It also gave Syria an opportunity to send troops to “keep the peace” and ultimately keep them there for 30 years.
Those of you who have no interest in the play-by-play should skip the next section. If
you’re curious about who fought who and when (will we ever really understand why?), let’s borrow that the Reasons and Opinions framework (thanks!) and use it to try to make sense of the struggle.
Phase 1: Christians vs. PLO and Leftist Alliance:Â
As tensions between Palestinian refugees and other groups in Lebanon mounted, Druze leaders founded a secular, left-wing, PLO-supporting “Lebanese National Movement (LNM)” militia to counter Maronite economic and political power. The Maronite Phalange party developed its own militia. After much escalating violence the PLO and the LNM’s militia joined forces and attacked Beirut. The Phalangists fought back. At this point Syria’s President Assad to sent troops to Beirut, ostensibly as peacekeepers, and for a moment fighting slowed. (Syrian troops would remain in Lebanon until 2005.)
Phase 2: Christians vs. Syrians:
The mainly Christian ruling-class Phalangists became increasingly frustrated with the Syrian intervention and actually worked with Israel to help keep Syria at bay.
Phase 3: Israel vs. PLO:
In 1978 Israel’s army moved into Southern Lebanon to fight the PLO there, withdrawing soon thereafter but leaving a newly-formed “South Lebanese Army,” a mix of Shia Muslims and Maronite Christians, in charge. In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon again to try to destroy the PLO and bombed Beirut for 70 days. Both Arafat and Israel eventually agreed to withdraw from Beirut and an international peacekeeping force came in, though Israel soon entered Beirut again with the stated intent of rooting out PLO members in refugee camps there. The Christian-based Lebanese Forces (LF), with Israel’s encouragement, raided two large Palestinian refugee camps, resulting in many civilian deaths.
Phase 4: Christians vs. Druze and Shia (and other Syrian allies):
Much confusing maneuvering ensued. A Shia militia called Amal became powerful and in 1983 an offshoot, Islamic Jihad, bombed the American Embassy. A peace agreement that called for both Israel and Syria to withdraw wasn’t effective. Syria actually developed a coalition of Amal (Shia), Druze, Sunni Muslims and even some Christians to rule the country and counter the Israelis. There was still more fighting, including numerous attacks on American and French compounds by a new Shia party called Hezbollah.
Phase 5: Shia vs. Palestinians:
Shia militias squared off against Palestinians in refugee camps, though at the same time both tried to make life difficult for Israel, whose troops were still in Southern Lebanon. Syria sent more troops to quell a dispute between its allies the Amal (Shia) and the Druze.
Phase 6: Christians vs. Christians:
The Lebanese Forces broke from the Phalangists and they fought each other. Confusing.
Phase 7: Christians vs. Syria and allies:
A Maronite Christian, Michel Aoun, moved temporarily into the prime minister role, a post
formally reserved for a Sunni Muslim. Syria protested. Aoun called for a war of liberation against Syria.
Phase 8: Aoun vs. Everybody:
Syria tried to use its pull to oust Aoun but a coalition of Christians, Sunni and Shia supported him. When tried to bring the Lebanese Forces into the Lebanese Army, however, the two groups began to fight each other. The U.S., courting Syria as an ally in the Gulf War, didn’t act when Syria took advantage of this moment to reassert itself militarily in Lebanon and force Aoun out. Sunni businessman-turned-politician Rafi Hariri became Prime Minister and ushered in an era of economic reform. The government disbanded all militias except for that of Hezbollah, which continued to bomb Israel from Southern Lebanon.
Phase 9: Hezbollah vs. Israel:
Syrian-backed Hezbollah and Israel jostled against one another in Southern Lebanon for over a decade; Israel formally invaded in 2006 and attacked Hezbollah’s infrastructure, but withdrew before felling Hezbollah. This “victory” earned Hezbollah considerably more power within the nation.
Phase 10: Everybody vs. Syria and Shia allies:
Prime Minister Hariri led a push in the United Nations to call for Syrian withdraw from Lebanon. In 2005 he was assassinated. Investigations implicated the Syrians and the Lebanese people banded together in an alliance against Syria that consisted of Christians, Sunnis, and Druze. Though Hezbollah rallied to support Syria, anti-Syria protests were bigger. Eventually this non-violent protest movement, known as The Cedar Revolution, forced the Syrians to withdraw and awarded Lebanese political power to a coalition formed by Hariri’s son.
Today’s Lebanon may not yet truly be at peace, but it’s becoming accustomed again to the absence of war. While Israel is still just (literally) a stone’s throw across the Southern border, while Hezbollah maintains its militia (though it also has seats in parliament), while Syria has formally withdrawn its troops but still can pull a string or two, while there are still hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, while there are still those long-standing Christian/Sunni/Shia/Druze political and economic divides…Lebanese know their nation has a lot of problems, but at the same time so much potential to rise above those problems and return to being the forward-thinking center of Arabic music and thought that, for thousands of years, essentially made it hip.
Wikipedia on Lebanon | Why all the cedars? | Christian Crusaders left their literal mark on Lebanon | Who were the Mamluks and how did they become powerful enough to defeat the Crusaders? | The good, bad and ugly of confessionalism | Timeline of the Lebanese Civil War | The agreement in 1989 to end the civil war (the Taif agreement) took power from the Maronite-dominated presidency and transferred it to the parliament, which it split 50/50 between Christians and Muslims | You should clebrate the end of the Civil War by dancing the Lebanese dabke. Especially if you’re a baby.
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