Lebanon: Conflict Profile
After a 14-year civil war ended in 1990, tensions are still high in Lebanon. The complexities of its multi-ethnic society and the political motives of its neighbouring countries have had profound effects in shaping Lebanon’s ever-changing and fragmented political structure.
After the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations in the 1920s divided the region between Britain and France. The French aimed to turn the Lebanese mountains in the north into a solid French dominion, based on its Christian population, and effectively they cut Lebanon off from Syria and turned it into a separate state. Lebanon achieved independence in 1943, and the ‘National Pact’ was created to balance the political power between the main religious groups – which consisted of Maronite Christians, Greek Orthodox and the Sunni and Shia Muslims. However, this pact tended to reinforce ethnic divides as a basis for political organisation. The census on which it was based is now heavily outdated in a country that has a Muslim majority and 18 recognised sects in total.
In 1948, after the declaration of the Israeli state, around 110,000 Palestinian refugees flew into Lebanon. During the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when Israel occupied the Golan Heights, Sinai, Gaza and the West Bank, a second large influx of Palestinian refugees entered Lebanon and by the start of the civil war there were around 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The Palestinian resistance movement moved much of its fighting strength into the South of Lebanon in 1970 after the massacres of Black September in Jordan. From here they were more able to attack Israel, as Lebanon was politically more fragmented and they had political supporters in the Lebanese goverment who were sympathetic to their cause. The increasing attacks on northern Israeli settlements and the subsequent counter-attacks by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) heightened the tension in the area. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), at this point, was a loose confederation of different political and armed groups but Yassir Arafat was able to unite its factions under his leadership.
Further Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians were carried out by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), led by Geoge Habash, who carried out airplane hijackings in Algiers and Athens. Israel retaliated by bombing 13 stationary civilian aircraft carriers in Beirut airport, as they accused the Lebanese government of supporting the PFLP. This led to heightened tensions between the Maronite controlled government who opposed the Palestinian presence in Lebanon and many of the Muslim political groups who supported them.
In 1969 the Cairo Agreement between the PLO and Lebanon gave the PLO greater autonomy over Palestinian refugee camps and access routes to Northern Israel, in return for PLO recognition of Lebanese sovereignty. The agreement incited Maronite frustration over what were perceived as excessive concessions to the Palestinians and pro-Maronite paramilitary groups were subsequently formed to fill the vacuum left by government forces, who were now required to leave the Palestinians alone.
These events and emerging violent political movements steadily built up the increasing tensions in the region, along with other factors that included the rise of Arab nationalism, the Cold War and the Iran-Iraq War. Violence ultimately imploded in Lebanon in 1975, with the beginning of the civil war, in which Syria, Israel and the PLO also played out their own proxy wars.
It is estimated that up 200,000 people were killed during the 14 years of conflict and up to a million people were displaced, internally and internationally. During the course of the fighting alliances shifted regularly and the influence of different international actors supplying financial assistance and arms caused the progress of the conflict to change unpredictably. Many Lebanese cities lay in ruins as a result of the bombardments from the Lebanese Front, the Lebanese National Movement, the Syrian Army and the IDF.
The civil war officially ended with the ratification of the ‘National Reconciliation Accord’ or Ta’if Agreement in November 1989. The accord legitimised Syrian forces in the country, present since 1976, adjusted the distribution of power in favour of Muslims, equalling its representation to Christians, and permitted the Shi’ite Hezbollah militia to maintain its armed forces. The latter fought against Israel to regain control of the occupied South Lebanon, until Israel handed over the territories in 2000. With a high population of Palestinian refugees living in the country (around 8 per cent of the total Lebanese population), the Arab-Israeli conflict has had a huge impact in Lebanon’s volatile environment.
Despite the 1989 agreement, the country’s politics remain characterised by sectarianism and violence. In 2005 former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated. Lebanese groups then in opposition accused Syria of involvement, while Damascus denied the charge. Huge pro- and anti-Syria rallies were held in Beirut. The incident triggered the so-called ‘Cedar Revolution’, forcing Syria to withdraw its troops as they were blamed for the killing.
The Hariri case took a major step forward on 1 March 2007, when an international court into the killing opened in The Hague. In the early stages the Un-backed tribunal implicated top-level Syrian security officials, but it then issued arrest warrants for Hezbollah members. Both Syrian government and Hezbollah and Syria have denied any role in the 2005 assassination.
In January 2011, 11 Hezbollah ministers resigned because they wanted the then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri (Rafik Hariri’s son) to withdraw Lebanon’s funding for the tribunal and stop all co-operation. The government collapsed and the Hezbollah-backed business tycoon, Najib Mikati, was appointed as the prime minister-designate.
Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in March 2011, tensions have spilled over Lebanon with deadly clashes between Sunni Muslims and Alawites. According to UNHCR, at least 700,000 Syrian refugees have flew into Lebanon.
In March 2013 Syrian forces fired rockets into northern Lebanon, as retaliation against militants crossing the border to fight alongside the rebels in Syria. The tensions led to the resignation of Najib Mikati and in April a new government, led by Sunni Muslim politician Tamam Salam, was formed. Elections due in June 2013 were postponed to November 2014, because of the sectarian clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime.
In July 2013 the military wing of Hezbollah was listed as a terrorist organisation by the European Union. In August 2013 around 42 people were killed and more than 400 wounded, in bomb attacks at two mosques in the capital. Since the end of the civil war in 1990, these are the deadliest attacks in Lebanon’s history.
Last updated: September 2013