Lebanon: Conflict Profile
The complexities of multi-ethnic societies in the Middle East are extremely astute in Lebanese society. They have had profound effects in shaping Lebanon’s ever-changing and fragmented political structure, which led to a long and bloody civil war and where tensions still remain high today and are fed by the political motives of its neighbouring countries.
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to reinforce ethnic divides as a basis for political organisation, and the census on which it was based is now heavily outdated in a country that has a Muslim majority and 18 recognised sects in total.This building in Beirut gives an indication of the scale of damage inflicted on the city since the Civil War started in 1975. Photo thanks to Antonio Caselli. Uploaded under a Creative Commons license.
In 1948 the ethnic structure of Lebanese society transformed again with the first influx of around 110,000 Palestinian refugees into Lebanon after the declaration of the Israeli state and the Arab-Israeli War. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, where 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, were 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 – Israel handed over the territories in 2000.
Despite the agreement, the country’s politics remained characterised by sectarianism and, at times, by violent attempts of communities to enhance their share of power and access to resources. Indeed, former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated in 2005. The incident triggered the so-called ‘Cedar Revolution’, forcing Syria to withdraw its troops as they were blamed for the killing. Syrian-Lebanese relationships still remain strained.
Lebanon has been drawn into regional confrontations and tensions, with the Israeli assault on Hezbollah in 2006 constituting a more recent example – two Israeli soldiers were captured and eight killed by Hezbollah, leading to month-long attacks by the Israel forces. After the war ended, Lebanese politicians struggled to stabilise the government. 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.
Deep divisions within Lebanon’s political structure have remained and sporadic sectarian violence flared again both in 2007 and 2008. For the situation to stabilise, it will require an improvement in the relationship between Iran, Syria and the West, détente between Israel and its near-neighbours and increased political recognition of, and investment in, the Palestinian refugee population residing on Lebanese territory. The arrival of Barack Obama, improving external relations with Syria, and the possibility of a less confrontational Hezbollah create conditions more prone to regional stability. In the long-term, however, a final agreement between the main actors in the country’s security environment is likely to remain elusive for years, at the expense of Lebanese political and socioeconomic development.
This followed the assassination in Beirut of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Lebanese groups then in opposition accused Syria of involvement; Damascus denied the charge. Huge pro- and anti-Syria rallies were held in Beirut, triggering the government’s downfall and the Syrian pullout. The Hariri case appeared to have taken a major step forward on 1 March 2009 when an international court into the killing opened in The Hague.
By autumn 2010, the issuing of indictments over the Hariri killing was thought to be imminent, with anger from Hezbollah leaders over accusations of their involvement in the murder. The government collapsed in January 2011 after the Hezbollah ministers and some of its political allies resign. Saad Hariri has been ousted as the Prime Minister and the Hezbollah-backed telecoms tycoon Najib Mikati looks set to become the new Prime Minister, which would make this the first Hezbollah-led government. This has led to protests from Sunni Muslim areas and alarm from Israel and the US, who fear that a Hezbollah-led government will lead to an increase in the influence of power from Iran.
Last updated: August 2011