Lebanese Civil War

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Lebanese Civil War





The Lebanese civil war erupted in April 1975 and ended in October 1990. Since its independence in 1943, Lebanon has been governed by a confessional political system in which parliamentary seats and governmental and civil service positions are distributed among religious sects in accordance with their population ratio. The 1926 constitution, which officially recognizes the distribution of cabinet positions and governmental jobs on a sectarian basis, was supplemented at the time of independence in 1943 by an informal gentlemens agreement, the National Pact, at the time of independence. According to this agreement, the president has to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of the Parliament a Shia Muslim, and the deputy speaker a Greek Orthodox. The Muslims shunned pan-Arabism and recognized Lebanons independence; Christians agreed to the Arab character of the country and eschewed western protection. This consociational democracy was based on cooperation and moderation among mainly Maronite and Sunni elites, perpetuated a weak state, and institutionalized the sectarian differences. Despite its defects, though, the Lebanese political system established order and stability from 1943 until 1975, weathering the crises of 1952 and 1958.


Several developments in the 1960s undermined the precarious Lebanese republic. First, socioeconomic developments exacerbated economic inequalities. The Lebanese economy was characterized by free trade, low industrialization, low taxation, and minimal state intervention. Hence, the state was in position to effectively address the needs of the poorer segments of the population. Also, economic differences overlapped with sectarian differences: Whereas Christians in general disproportionately benefited from the economic growth, the Shia remained at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Second, demographic trends changed the population ratio between sects. The Shia had the highest fertility rate, followed by the Sunnis. The distribution of political power, which was based on the 1932 census, ceased to reflect demographic realities, and these developments augmented the Muslim demand for institutional reform. The rise of radical and populist forces undermined the power of the traditional Sunni and Shia elites. Third, and most importantly, regional events put immense burdens on the Lebanese political system. The rise of Arab nationalism in the 1950s exacerbated the sectarian tensions in Lebanon. Although Sunni Muslims were supportive of the anti-western policies of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser (19181970), the Maronites adamantly refused to allow Lebanon to join the pro-Nasser camp. Lebanon was on the brink of civil war in 1958 when the Maronite president asked for help from the United States. The landing of the U.S. marines in Beirut quelled the violence, and a compromise candidate, Fuad Chehab, was elected president. After the 1967 Six Days War and their expulsion from Jordan in 1970, Palestinian guerillas chose Lebanon as the main base of their operations against Israel. The November 1969 Cairo agreement between Lebanon and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) gave the PLO extraterritorial rights. The entrenchment of the PLO in Lebanon provoked Christian resentment because it further changed the demographic ratio to the disadvantage of Christians, and it brought fierce reprisals from the Israelis, who held the Lebanese government responsible for the actions of the Palestinians. The Lebanese army was unable to control the PLO or to defend the country against Israeli incursions. The insecurity in southern Lebanon led to the dislocation of Shia villagers to urban peripheries. Furthermore, after Hafez al-Assad (19302000) assumed the presidency of Syria in 1970, Syria pursued a more assertive and ambitious foreign policy in Lebanon. The ruling Alawite minority perceived the Shia of Lebanon as a counterweight against the Sunni majority of Syria and the Palestinians.

By 1975 two main coalitions were confronting each other. On the one hand, Maronite Christians came together under the rubric of the Lebanese Forces (LF), which was dominated by the Phalange Party led by Bashir Gemayel (19471982). The LF was in favor of the continuation of the existing confessional system of government in Lebanon and opposed any institutional reform benefiting the Muslims. Moreover, it espoused the end of Palestinian extraterritorial rights. During the conflict, the LF toyed with the idea of creating a small Christian state in Mount Lebanon, an idea that was rejected by several more moderate Maronite leaders. On the other hand was an amalgam of groups that demanded the end of the confessional system and sympathized with the Palestinian goals. The Lebanese National Movement (LNM) included the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) led by the Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt (19171977), the Amal militia headed by the Shia leader Musa al-Sadr (19281978?), the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), the Communists, the Arab nationalist Baʿth Party, and the Sunni al-Murabitun militia, and it had the support of the PLO.


Fighting broke out between Palestinian guerrillas and the Phalange in April 1975, and several months later Lebanon was engulfed in full-scale civil war. The first phase of the civil war continued for eighteen months. By December 1975 the LNM was on the verge of defeating the LF, but Syria intervened to prevent that outcome because the ruling Alawite regime in Syria feared that the dissolution of Lebanon or the leftist and PLO domination of Lebanon would jeopardize its rule over the Sunni majority in Syria. Both the United States and Israel gave tacit agreement to Syrias intervention, which resulted in de facto partition of Lebanon. With the Syrian army in control of most of the country, the LF, the PLO, the Druze, and the pro-Israeli Free Lebanon Army established themselves in different parts of the country. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) became a buffer between the pro-Israeli militia and the PLO.

From 1976 to 1982 the conflict between the PLO and Israel continued unabated. In March 1977 Jumblatt was assassinated, and the LNM was beset by factionalism. In August 1978 al-Sadr disappeared while on a trip to Libya. Meanwhile, the relations between the LF and Syria deteriorated, and the Syrian regime suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood after much bloodshed. In 1981 Syrian-Israel relations deteriorated further, and Israel initiated a large-scale invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The Israeli goals were the destruction of PLO autonomy, the weakening of the Syrian influence in Lebanon, and most ambitiously, the reconstruction of the Lebanese state under the control of Gemayel, who allied himself with the Israelis. The invasion achieved its first goal, as the PLO was obliged to leave West Beirut in 1982 and later, Tripoli in 1983 after the Syrian attacks. However, the Israeli armys defeat of the Syrian forces did not end Syrian influence, which was rapidly restored with Soviet support. Gemayel was assassinated in September 1982, shortly after he was elected president. A security pact signed between Israel and Lebanon in May 1983 was later abrogated. Moreover, the LF massacres of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps surrounded by the Israeli army in September 1982 left the Israeli goal of establishing order in Lebanon in tatters. A multinational force composed of U.S., French, and Italian forces landed in West Beirut in October 1982, but its mission became a disaster when the U.S. and French barracks were devastated by suicide bombing attacks in October 1983. The Israelis withdrew from most of Lebanon in 1985, but remained in control of the southern border zone by sponsoring a Christian-dominated militia, the South Lebanon Army. The Israeli occupation eventually ended in May 2000, but it had contributed to the Islamic mobilization of the Shia and the rise of Hezbollah as the most powerful local organization in Lebanon. Support from the Islamic republic of Iran and the cooperation of Syria contributed to the emergence of Hezbollah as an effective guerrilla organization with extensive social services.


The later 1980s saw intra-sectarian conflict among the Muslims and Christians and the complete fragmentation of the state authority in Lebanon. The Shia militia Amal took over West Beirut in February 1984, and tensions between Amal and the Palestinians erupted into open conflictthe war of the campsin 1985, prompting the Syrian occupation of West Beirut in 1987. Armed rivalry between Hezbollah and Amal from 1988 to 1990 resulted in the establishment of the former as a major force in Beirut. Among Christians, General Michel Aoun (b. 1935), the commander of the Lebanese army, emerged as a strong contender for leadership; President Amine Gemayel appointed him prime minister in 1988 in defiance of the National Pact. Aoun vehemently opposed Syrian interference and portrayed himself as a secular nationalist leader. He clashed with the LF for control of the Christian enclave and declared a war of liberation against Syria in March 1989. He was ultimately unsuccessful, and was forced into exile in 1991. With his defeat, the Lebanese Civil War came to an end.

A principal reason for the end of active hostilities was the exhaustion brought on by the fifteen years of warfare. None of the groups was able to establish dominance over others, and sectarian divisions continued as before. Syria emerged as the hegemonic power in Lebanon, with U.S. endorsement, and achieved veto power over all important political decisions. The Taif Agreement (1989), which was signed by the surviving Lebanese parliamentarians and crystallized the ethos of no victor and no vanquished, amended the constitution but did not dismantle confessionalism. By its terms, the power of the president was reduced in favor of the prime minister and the speaker of the Parliament, and the parliamentary seats were equally distributed between Christians and Muslims. All the militias were disarmed in March 1991 with the exception of Hezbollah, which continued its resistance against Israel in the border zone. Syria did not completely withdraw from Lebanon until 2005.

SEE ALSO Arab-Israeli War of 1967; Civil Wars; Communalism; Conflict; Democracy, Consociational; Ethnic Conflict; Ethnic Fractionalization; Muslims; Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); Palestinians; Phalangists; Suez Crisis


Dekmejian, Richard Hrair. 1978. Consociational Democracy in Crisis: The Case of Lebanon. Comparative Politics 10 (2): 251256.

El-Khazen, Farid. 2000. The Breakdown of the State in Lebanon, 19671976. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fisk, Robert. 2002. Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon. 4th ed. New York: Nation Books.

Khalaf, Samir. 2002. Civil and Uncivil Violence in Lebanon. New York: Columbia University Press.

Picard, Elizabeth. 1996. Lebanon: A Shattered Country: Myths and Realities of the Wars in Lebanon. Revised ed. New York: Holmes and Meier.

Rabinovich, Itamar. 1986. The War for Lebanon, 19701985. Revised ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Gunes Murat Tezcur

Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990)

views updated May 08 2018


domestic conflict in lebanon.

There is no consensus among scholars and researchers on what triggered the Lebanese Civil War. The strike of fishermen at Sidon in February 1975 could be considered the first important episode that set off the outbreak of hostilities. That event involved a specific issue: the attempt of former President Camille Chamoun (also head of the Maronite-oriented National Liberal Party) to monopolize fishing along the coast of Lebanon. The injustices perceived by the fishermen evoked sympathy from many Lebanese and reinforced the resentment and antipathy that were widely felt against the state and the economic monopolies. The demonstrations against the fishing company were quickly transformed into a political action supported by the political left and their allies in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The state tried to suppress the demonstrators, and a government sniper reportedly killed a popular figure in the city, Maʿruf Saʿd, who was known for his opposition to the government and his support for the Palestinians.

The events in Sidon were not contained for long. The government began to lose control of the situation in April 1975, when a bus carrying Palestinians was ambushed by gunmen belonging to the Phalange party. The party claimed that earlier its headquarters had been targeted by unknown gunmen. The attack against the bus in Ayn al-Rummana marked the official beginning of the Lebanese Civil War. Initially, the war pitted Maronite-oriented right-wing militias (most notably the Phalange party and the National Liberal party) against leftist and Muslim-oriented militias (grouped together in the Lebanese National Movement) supported by the PLO. The eruption of military hostilities produced a heated political debate on whether the army of Lebanon, led by a right-wing Maronite commander, should be deployed to end the fighting. Most Muslims and leftists opposed any use of the army, which was seen as anti-Palestinian; most right-wingers called for its immediate deployment.

The characterizations of the combatants in the civil war often obscure the nature of the conflict. Many Lebanese still see the civil war as the product of a conspiracy hatched by outsiders who were jealous of "Lebanese democracy and prosperity." The civil war should be viewed as a multidimensional conflict that at its roots is a classical civil strife with the domestic parties determining the course but rarely the outcome of the fighting. Over the course of Lebanese history external parties have insisted on preventing the Lebanese from proceeding unrestrained in their civil strife. Had the Lebanese been allowed to continue fighting without external restraints, some sects in Lebanon would have been eliminated long ago. This is not to say that the external partiesnotably Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Israelhave not contributed to the intensification of the conflict whenever it suited their interests. All of these states have had proxy militias operating in Lebanon.

The roots of the civil war are a set of issues, some having to do with domestic politics and others with foreign policy. It is fair to say that the system of sectarian distribution of power that had been

sponsored by France since 1920 led to the increasing frustration of Muslims, who grew demographically but not politically. In 1975 the political system continued to assume that the figures of the 1932 censusthe only census in Lebanon's historywhich showed the Maronites to be the single largest sect in the country, had not changed. However, it was widely known that the Shiʿa had long been the single largest sect, although their political representation was small. The ceremonial post of speaker of Parliament was reserved for the Shiʿa, whereas the presidency was reserved for Maronites, and the prime ministership for Sunnis. The Shiʿa included a disproportionate number of poor people, and, to add to their misery, predominated in the area of southern Lebanon that in the 1960s became an arena for Israel-Palestinian conflict. The state of Lebanon, which always avoided provoking Israel, simply abandoned southern Lebanon. Many of the people there migrated to the suburbs of Beirut which are known as "poverty belts." The young Shiʿite migrants, who had not participated in the prosperity of prewar Beirut, joined many Lebanese and Palestinian organizations.

The Sunnis had grievances, too. The office of the prime minister was marginalized by the strong presidency of Sulayman Franjiyya, who was elected in 1970. In 1973, when Prime Minister Sa'ib Salam could not fire the commander in chief of the army after a commando raid launched from Israel that targeted three high-ranking PLO leaders, the issue of the powers of the prime minister emerged as a symbol of the sectarian/political imbalance in the country. Socioeconomic dissatisfaction plus political resentment produced an unstable political system.

The presence of Palestinians in Lebanon was another thorny issue. The state decided to crack down on their armed presence in Lebanon while right-wing militias were being armed and financed by the army. Many leftists and Muslims wanted the state to support the Palestinians and to send the army to protect southern Lebanon against raids from Israel. The PLO, on the other hand, was tempted to take advantage of the domestic turmoil to shore up support for its cause and to undermine the military power of the Army, which had long harassed Palestinians.

The first phase of the Lebanese Civil War did not end; it merely came to a temporary halt as a result of regional and international consensus. When it was becoming clear that the PLO and its Lebanese allies were about to overrun predominantly Christian areas, Syria intervened militarily in Lebanon and, with support from Israel, the United States, and France, fought the Palestinians and their Lebanese allies. The fighting stopped for a while, although southern Lebanon continued to be an arena for the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as the armed militias, who were present throughout Lebanon. By 1978, Syria's relations with Maronite-oriented parties had worsened, and the rise of Bashir Jumayyil as head of the Lebanese Forcesthe coalition of right-wing fighting groupscaused a change in the course of the civil war. Israel became a close ally of the Lebanese Forces, and Syria's regime decided to sponsor the leftist-Palestinian coalition. In the spring of 1978, Israel's army invaded Lebanon in order to end any military presence in southern Lebanon, except that of the pro-Israel militia. Although international opprobium forced Israel southward, and although UN forces were deployed in southern Lebanon to pacify the region, Israel continued to occupy part of southern Lebanon, calling the strip of land "the security zone."

The civil war took another turn in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon again; this time Israeli's forces reached Beirut. Israel took advantage of the deteriorating security situation throughout the country and expected that popular frustration with the misconduct of members of the PLO, and Syrian and Lebanese troops, would provide positive climate for its all-out military intervention. The invasion claimed the lives of some 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians. Israel also wanted to influence the 1982 presidential election; Bashir Jumayyil was elected president but was assassinated a few days later. His assassination was the pretext that the Lebanese Forces gave for their mass killing of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Amin Jumayyil, the next president, supported the signing of an Israel-Lebanon peace treaty in May 1983. Lebanon's opposition, coupled with Syria's rejection on the pro-Israel, pro-United States orientation of Jumayyil, resulted in the eruption of hostilities throughout the latter's administration. When Jamayyil's term ended in the summer of 1988, he appointed the Maronite commander in chief of the army, Gen. Michel Aoun, as interim president. His appointment was rejected by many Lebanese, and Aoun launched a "war of national liberation" against Syria's army in Lebanon. His shells, however, fell on innocent Lebanese living in areas under Syria's control.

The beginning of the end of the civil war came in October 1989, when Lebanese deputies gathered in the city of Ta'if in Saudi Arabia. The meeting produced a document of national accord. It was impossible to implement, however, until General Aoun's forces were defeated in October 1990, when Syria's troops attacked his headquarters and he was forced to seek refuge in France. President Ilyas alHirawi was elected in 1989, and the territorial integrity of Lebanon has been partially restored.

see also aoun, michel; chamoun, camille; franjiyya, sulayman; jumayyil, bashir; lebanese forces; phalange; sabra and shatila massacres; salam family.

as 'ad abukhalil

Lebanese Civil War (1958)

views updated May 29 2018


uprising against the government.

Fifteen years after Lebanon became officially free of French mandatory control, it assumed its role as an independent republic on the basis of an unwritten national pact, whose symbolic and practical importance is difficult to exaggerate. In May 1958, the nation of 1.1 million people, whose political institutions reflected the balance of power between its confessional communities, exploded in civil war.

Rooted in a series of interlocking factors of domestic, regional, and international origin, the primary causes of the war were domestic in nature. They were shaped by the policies of the presidential regime of Camille Chamoun (19521958), whose personal ambitions capped a domestic politics and foreign policy that greatly exacerbated existing divisions in a state whose civil and national consciousness were less developed than its successful mercantile character.

President Chamoun's ambition to succeed himself in office contributed to the existing political tensions and was widely viewed as one of the major catalysts of civil strife. The Lebanese government claimed that civil insurrection was a function of external intervention organized by Egypt and Syria, in the United Arab Republic (UAR). But the war that

was sparked by the assassination of the journalist Nasib Matni, on 8 May 1958, was rooted in preexisting grievances that involved questions of political access; confessionalism and class; group identity and national consensus; and the major discontent of political elites displaced by corrupt elections in 1957, as well as the dissatisfaction of those constituencies deprived of significant representation.

Opposition groups that included an array of established political figures, some of whom would come to office in the post-Chamoun regime for the first time, opposed the president's perpetuation in office, and, in some instances, his foreign policy as well.

Under the Chamoun regime, Lebanon threw its support to the conservative Arab coalition and became a staunch advocate of U.S. policy and the Eisenhower Doctrine of 1957. That stance identified Lebanon with the anti-Nasserist and anti-Arab nationalist forces in the region. The intensification of domestic tensions exploded with the Nasib Matni assassination, and President Chamoun was challenged by the opposition. The Lebanese govern-ment's response was to blame civil strife on interference by the UAR and to charge it with the attempt to undermine Chamoun regime and state. These charges came before the League of Arab States (Arab League) and the United Nations, which assigned a task force to investigate charges of massive infiltration by foreign forces in Lebanon. It was on the basis of this same charge that President Chamoun had requested assistance from the United States. With the military coup in Iraq on 14 July, an event that shook the Western powers, the United States responded on 15 July with military intervention in Lebanon, while Great Britain gave protective cover to the Jordanian regime. The United States remained in Lebanon overseeing the election of a new president, Fuʾad Chehab, an event which marked the beginning of a new phase in the nation's development. Many would argue, however, that the fundamental roots of this first civil war had not been satisfactorily resolved.

see also chamoun, camille; chehab, fuʾad; united arab republic (uar).


Agwani, M. S., ed. The Lebanese Crisis, 1958: A Documentary Study. New York: Asia Publishing House, 1965.

Qubain, Fahim. Crisis in Lebanon. Washington, DC: Middle East Institute, 1961.

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