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Lebanon: The History of Modern Lebanon

by Mitchell G. Bard

When France took control of Lebanon after World War I, the area differed from the rest of the Arab world because it had a mix of Muslims and Christians, with the latter in the majority. The country adopted a constitution that created a parliament with a president and prime minister. To satisfy the political demands of the two main demographic groups, a compromise was reached whereby the president was always to be a Maronite Christian and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim. As in the other nations during this time, the true ruler remained the mandatory power — in this case France.

Neither the Muslims nor the Christians were content under French control, and strong sentiment existed for unification with Syria. Whenever unrest threatened the nation’s stability, the French would crack down and restore order.

During World War II, the Arabs sympathized more with the Axis, but were not happy when the Germans overran France and the Vichy regime took control in Lebanon. To encourage support for the Free French who were fighting under Charles de Gaulle, the Lebanese were offered independence, which they subsequently declared on November 26, 1941. Although France continued to post troops in the country and exercise influence, British and American support for Lebanese emancipation resulted in a gradual erosion of France’s position, culminating in the withdrawal of all their troops at the end of 1946.

Careful with Israel

Although France lost its privileged position, Lebanon remained especially close to the West and was particularly interested in maintaining good relations with the United States. This goal was complicated by American support for partition, which the Lebanese opposed both rhetorically and militarily.

After the establishment of Israel, Lebanon stayed mostly out of the conflict. It continued to express the general Arab hostility and refused to recognize Israel, but Lebanon’s leaders also understood that their country was too weak to risk a confrontation and therefore kept fairly tight control on Palestinian refugees and anyone else who might want to provoke an incident.

Religion and Politics

The key factor in Lebanese politics throughout its short history has been the delicate demographic balance between Muslims and Christians and the internal divisions among the Muslim factions.

In the 1950s and 60s, Nasser’s Pan-Arabism swept the country and radicalized much of the Muslim population, which already was unhappy with having to share power with the Christians. The Muslims were the main proponents of unifying with Syria because that would ensure Muslim dominance of the enlarged entity. Christians opposed the idea, fearing just that outcome.

In 1958, the murder of a prominent opposition newspaper editor provoked widespread violence. Pan-Arabists accused the Christian president and other nationalists of the crime, and soon received backing from the newly formed United Arab Republic. The Lebanese government appealed for help, but found little support until the United States decided to send troops to defend Lebanon’s sovereignty. The Eisenhower administration was less concerned with Lebanon in particular than the broader threat to pro-Western Arab nations posed by Pan-Arabists.

The U.S. intervention helped stop the violence, and an agreement was negotiated between Christians and Muslims that involved the controversial President Camille Chamoun stepping down and a new power-sharing arrangement that gave the Muslims greater representation in public offices. The rebels had hoped to move Lebanon away from the West and closer to the rest of the Arab world, but they failed.

A New Imbalance

After the civil war, the Christians and Muslims seemed to come to an understanding that their interests had to be balanced and that the country was too weak to remain independent without Western backing, but also that they could not afford to be isolated in the Arab world. As much as many Muslims wanted Lebanon to be part of the greater Arab world, they also knew that they would lose their individual power if that were to happen.

At the same time, an intense political rivalry always remained just below the surface of relations between the factions, and these only grew as it became clear the demographics of the country were changing. According to the agreement they had reached, the proportion of Christian to Muslim representatives in the government was supposed to be 6 to 5. By the 1970s, Muslims believed the population had tilted in their favor, but the Christians refused to allow a new census that might confirm the suspicion that they were now the minority. This was a source of persistent frustration in the Muslim community.

The delicate ethnic-political balance in Lebanon began to unravel in the early 1970s. One catalyst was Black September and the influx of Palestinians into Southern Lebanon who quickly re-created the state-within-a-state they had lost in Jordan. The intensification of the PLO's terrorist attacks on Israel further undermined central Lebanese authorityIn addition, the Muslim population was demanding a greater share of power that better reflected their majority status. In general, the Muslims were increasingly dissatisfied with the political arrangement that kept Christians in power.

That arrangement had been based on the 1930s census that counted Christians in the majority in Lebanon. Although no new official count was allowed, no one doubted a demographic shift had occurred, which was why the Christians were determined to keep using the old census. The Christians were led by Pierre Gemayel, whose Phalange party wanted to maintain the country's independence and the minority's political rights.

Christians Versus Muslims and Palestinians

The ethnic, religious, and tribal divisions in Lebanon increasingly took on the appearance of a Hatfields versus McCoys-type feud in which each group accused the other of discrimination, violence, or some slight that provoked a flurry of attacks and counterattacks. The final straw in the feud occurred on April 13, 1975, when a bus carrying a group of Palestinian terrorists was attacked by the Christian Phalangists*, who had been at odds with the Palestinians. The cycle of violence quickly escalated to a civil war with Christians fighting the Palestinian and Muslim forces.

Syria had long considered Lebanon to be part of Greater Syria, and President Hafez Assad saw the fighting there as an opportunity to move toward the goal of swallowing his neighbor. Initially, the Syrians armed the Muslims and Palestinians, but then attempted to mediate a new agreement that changed some of the rules regarding the division between Christians and Muslims in the government. Thinking that the Christians were on the verge of defeat, however, militant Muslim leaders continued their campaign.

In April 1976, Assad ordered Syrian troops into the country. A few months later, thousands more invaded and seized control of most of Lebanon. The Syrians chose not to move farther south than the Litani River for fear that it would provoke Israeli intervention (and Israel had warned Assad against doing so). Retroactively, the Arab League then agreed to create an Arab Deterrent Force to maintain order in Lebanon. Only a handful of soldiers from other countries was deployed, however, and more than 30,000 Syrian troops were essentially given the Arab world's permission to permanently occupy Lebanon. They are still there.

By the time Syria had pacified the country, Lebanon had been effectively partitioned into three regions. In the center of Lebanon, Christians predominated; in the north, the population was mostly Sunni Muslim; and in the south, the Palestinians were joined by a concentration of Shia Muslims. Syria controlled the center and northern zones, and the PLO essentially controlled the south.

Christian leaders held out hope of expelling the Syrians and establishing a Christian state in Lebanon. Israel saw these leaders as potential peace partners and provided arms and aid to strengthen their militias. They could not keep the peace, however, and Israel soon found itself under increasing threat from Palestinian terrorists who infiltrated by land and sea from the northern border, ultimately provoking Israel to send troops into the country to root out terrorists in 1978, and then again to try to destroy the PLO altogether in the war that began in 1982.

Under Syria’s Thumb

Today, Lebanon remains trapped in limbo. It is essentially a satellite of Syria, unable to act independently. Syria and Iran continue to arm and finance Hizballah terrorists, which prevents the southern part of the country from becoming stable. The problem could be solved if the Lebanese army redeployed to the southern border, as the United States and others have repeatedly suggested, but Syria will not allow it because of Hafez and now Bashar Assad’s desire to continue to fight a proxy war against Israel. Syria also prevents any movement toward peace by Lebanon so long as Israel does not resolve the dispute over the Golan Heights.

Meanwhile, the internal politics of the nation have also changed as the Muslims have become the dominant political force and Christians have become increasingly disenchanted by what they see as their declining influence. A series of Christian protests against Syrian influence in the country were brutally put down and a growing number of Christians are fleeing the country, leaving those who stay in an even weaker political position.

Lebanon has been rebuilding since the end of the war with Israel, but the nation remains occupied by Syrian forces. Since Bashar Assad took power, he has shown no indication that he is prepared to pull Syrian troops out of the country, though he did redeploy some forces from Beirut in response to pressure from the United States in the summer of 2004. At the same time, however, Syria backed a controversial change in the Lebanese constitution in September 2004 to allow Emile Lahoud, Lebanon's Syrian-backed president, to remain in office. Lahoud's term was to end in November, but parliament amended the Lebanese constitution and extended his term for another three years. Members of parliament complained that they were being pressured by Syria. In response, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri resigned along with his government.

On September 2, 2004, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1559 declaring its support for a free and fair presidential election in Lebanon, conducted according to Lebanese constitutional rules, devised without foreign interference or influence. The resolution also called upon all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon. In a related provision, the Council called for the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias. To secure passage, the resolution's sponsors removed mention of Syria from the resolution, though that is the occupying power that is referred to. Similarly, though Hizballah is the “militia” that is referred to, the sponsors could not mention it by name because of opposition from Council members.

*The Phalange was the largest and most important Christian-Maronite party in Lebanon. Founded in 1936 by Pierre Gemayel as a vigilante youth movement dedicated to the preservation of a Christian Lebanon, it later developed into a political party with a sophisticated and elaborate organization and a quite complex concept of the Lebanese entity and its problems.

Sources: Mitchell G. Bard,The Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict. 4th Edition. NY: Alpha Books, 2008.