Conflict in Middle East: (Part-3: Lebanon Conflict)


Originally part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, Lebanon was made a French mandate at the end of the First World War and became fully independent in 1945. It soon became a prosperous state, making money from banking and from serving as an important outlet for the exports of Syria, Jordan and Iraq. However, in 1975 civil war broke out, and although all-out war ended in 1976, chaos and disorder continued right through the 1980s as different factions struggled to gain influence.

(a) What caused civil war to break out in 1975

Religious differences

The potential for trouble was there from the beginning, since the country was a bewildering mixture of different religious groups, some Muslim, some Christian, which had developed independently, separated from each other by mountain ranges.

There were four main Christian groups:

  • Maronites (the wealthiest and most conservative);
  • Greek Orthodox;
  • Roman Catholics;
  • Armenians.

There were three Muslim groups:

  • Shia – the largest group, mainly poor working class;
  • Sunni – a smaller group, but wealthier and with more political influence than the Shia;
  • Druze – a small group living in the centre of the country, mainly peasants.

There was a long history of hatred between Maronites and Druze, but this seemed to be kept in check by the carefully framed constitution, which tried to give fair representation to all groups. The president was always a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni, the speaker (chairman of parliament) a Shia, and the army chief of staff a Druze. Of the 43 seats in parliament, the Maronites were allowed 13. Sunni 9, Shia 8, Greek Orthodox 5, Druze 3, Roman Catholics 3 and Armenians 2.

The presence of Palestinian refugees from Israel

This complicated the situation even more. By 1975 there were at least half a million of them living in squalid camps away from the main centres of population. The Palestinians were not popular in Lebanon because they were continuously involved in frontier incident with Israel, provoking the Israelis to hit back at the Palestinians in southern Lebanon. In particular the Palestinians being left-wing and Muslim, alarmed conservative and Christian Maronites, who looked on the Palestinians as a dangerous destabilizing influence. By 1975 the PLO had its headquarters in Lebanon, and this meant that Syria, the chief supporter of the PLO. was constantly interfering in Lebanon’s affairs.

A disputes between Muslims and Christians over fishing rights ( 1975)

The delicate balance between Muslims and Christian, was upset in 1975 by a dispute over fishing rights. It began as an apparently minor incident but it escalated when some Palestinian sided with the Muslims, and a group of right-wing Christians, known as the Phalange, began to attack Palestinian. Soon a full scale civil war developed: the Maronite saw it as a chance to expel the Palestinians who had formed an alliance with the Druze (long term enemies, of the Maronites).

It is probably impossible lo discover with complete certainty which side was responsible for the escalation of the war. Both side, claimed that the original fishing dispute could have been settled easily, and each blamed the other for escalating the violence. Either way the PLO were certainly involved as PLO guerrillas had fired at a church where some party leaders were attending mass.

For a time it looked as through the Druze would win, but this alarmed the Israelis, who threatened to invade Lebanon. The Syrian did not want this to happen, and so in 1976
President Assad of Syria sent troops into the Lebanon to keep the PLO under some sort of control. Order was restored and it was a setback tor the Druze and the PLO. It was the Syrian who now controlled Lebanon: Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader. had to agree to withdraw his troops from the area around Beirut (the capital of Lebanon).

(b) Chaos continues

It was over ten years before something approaching peace was restored in Lebanon as different conflict raged in different places.

  1. In the south, bordering Israel, fighting soon broke out between Palestinis and Christians. The Israeli seized this opportunity to send troops in to help the Christian. A small semi-independent Christian state of Free Lebanon was declared under Major Haddad. The Israelis supported this because it acted as a buffer zone to protected them from further Palestinian attacks. The Palestinians and Muslims counter-attacted. and although by 1982 there were 7000 UNIFIL (United Nation Interim Force in the Lehanon troops in this area, it was a constant struggle to keep the peace.
  2. In 1980 there was a short struggle between supporters of the two Maronite groups (the Gemayel and Chamoun families). which was won by the Gemayels.
  3. In 1982, in reprisal for a Palestanian Israel, Israeli troops invaded Lebanon and penetrated as far as Beirut, while Israeli planes bombed the Palestinian refugee camps. For a time the Gemayels. supported by the Israelis, were in control of Beirut. During this period the Palestinians were expelled from Beirut and from then on the PLO was divided. The hardliners went to Iraq and the rest dispersed into different Arab countries where they were on the whole not welcome. The Israelis withdrew and a multmattonal force (made up of troops from the USA France Italy and Britan) took their place to maintain the peace. However, a spate of attacks and suicide bombings forced them to withdraw
  4. In 1984 an alliance of Shia militia (known as Amal) and Druze militia, backed by Syria, drove President Gemayel out of Beirut. Then the Shia and Druze themselves came to blows in a struggle for control of West Beirut. Yasser Arafat used the general confusion to rearm his Palestinians in the refugee camps.

At the end of 1986 the situation was extremely complex:

Shiite Amal militia backed by Syria, alarmed at the renewed strength of the PLO, which seemed likely to set up a state within a state, were besieging the refugee camps, hoping to starve them into surrender.

At the same time an alliance of Druze, Sunni and communists was trying to drive Amal out of West Beirut. Another more extreme Shia group, known as Hezbollah (Party of God). which was backed by Iran, was also involved in the struggle. Early in 1987 fierce fighting again erupted between Shia and Druze militia for control of West Beirut. Several European and American hostages were seized, including Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s special envoy, who had gone to West Beirnt 10 try to negotiate the release of some earlier hostages. With the country apparently in a state of total disintegration, President Assad of Syria, responding 10 a request from the Lebanese government, again sent his troops into West Beirut (February 1987). Within a week, calm had been restored.

(c) Peace at last

Although assassinations of leading figures continued, the situation gradually stabilized. In
September 1990 important changes were introduced in the country ‘s constitution, giving the Muslims better representation. The membership of the National Assembly was increased to 108, equally divided between Christians and Muslims. The government, with Syrian help, gradually restored its authority over more and more of the country and managed to get most of the militia armies disbanded. The government also succeeded in getting all the Western hostages released. All this was very much because of the Syrian presence; in May 1991 the two states signed a treaty of ‘brotherhood and co-ordination’. However, this was strongly criticized by the Israelis, who claimed that the treaty marked the ‘virtual annexation of Lebanon by Syria’.

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