Lebanon: Conflict profile
After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War, the League of Nations divided much of its territory into British and French mandates. Under the mandate system, the British took control of Palestine and Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and the French took control of what would become the modern states of Syria and Lebanon. France aimed to turn the Lebanese mountains in the north into a French dominion, built around a shared Christian cultural and historical affinity. They created Greater Lebanon as a distinct political unit in 1920, separating it from the Syrian areas.
Lebanon achieved independence in 1943, and a ‘National Pact’ was created to balance political power between the main religious groups including Maronite and Greek Orthodox Christians, Druze, and Sunni and Shia Muslims. However, this pact tended to reinforce political organisation along confessional lines. Additionally, the 1932 census on which the Pact's six to five Christian to Muslim representation was based is now long out of date; the Christian population has declined and the Muslim population increased in the intervening 80 years. These shifting demographics and the struggle of various confessional groups for representation played a major role in tensions leading to civil war.
In 1948, after the independence of the Israeli state on its southern border, around 100,000 Palestinian refugees flooded north into Lebanon. During the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel occupied the Golan Heights, Sinai Peninsula, Gaza and the West Bank causing a new influx of Palestinian refugees into Lebanon. By the start of the civil war in 1975, Lebanon was host to around 400,000 Palestinian refugees.
The Cairo Agreement of 1969 between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Lebanese military 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.
In the wake of the Black September massacres in Jordan in 1970, the Palestinian resistance movement moved much of its fighting strength to south Lebanon where it was able to launch attacks into Israel. The increasing attacks on northern Israeli settlements by the PLO and affiliated groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), as well as highjackings of civilian airlines abroad, and the subsequent counter-attacks by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) heightened tension in the area. The PLO found support among left-wing Lebanese elements while the Christian Phalange, a right wing militia notorious for the 1982 massacres of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, was bolstered by Israel.
Violence ultimately exploded in Lebanon in 1975 after a Phalange attack in which 27 Palestinian civilians were killed. This provided the spark to ignite the civil war fought between a complex web of factions including secular leftists, right wing Christian militias, and the PLO, along with Syria, Israel, and their proxies. Syrian troops entered Lebanon - ostensibly as a peacekeeping force - in 1976, and Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 and 1982, occupying southern Lebanon until 2000. A United Nations peacekeeping force, UNIFIL, was put into place in the wake of the 1978 invasion.
The 14 year conflict left as many as 200,000 dead and up to a million people displaced. Alliances shifted regularly during the course of the fighting and the financial and military support of various international actors caused the progress of the conflict to change unpredictably. Many Lebanese cities were left in ruins as a result of the bombardments from the Lebanese Front, the Lebanese National Movement, the Syrian Army, and the IDF.
The ratification of the National Reconciliation Accord, or Ta’if Agreement, officially ended the war in 1989. The accord required belligerent groups to disarm and rebalanced the proportional representation of the confessional groups. The accord also legitimised Syrian forces in the country, present since 1976. Though other groups disarmed, the Shi’ite Hezbollah militia maintains its arms. Considered a terrorist organisation by some and resistance movement by others, Hezbollah fought against Israel to regain control of occupied South Lebanon until Israel’s withdrawal in 2000.
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 in March 2007, when an international tribunal on 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 the Syrian government and Hezbollah have denied any role in the 2005 assassination. In January 2011, 10 Hezbollah ministers, along with Adnan Sayyed Hussein, resigned in protest over then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s (Rafik Hariri’s son) support and funding of the tribunal. The government collapsed and the Syrian-backed business tycoon, Najib Mikati, was appointed as prime minister-designate.
The Syrian civil war
Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in March 2011, tensions have spilled over into Lebanon with deadly clashes between Sunni Muslims and Alawites. Hezbollah forces have also entered Syria, fighting on the side of the Assad government. In March 2013, Syrian forces fired rockets into northern Lebanon, in retaliation for militants crossing the border to fight alongside the rebels. In August that year, around 42 people were killed and more than 400 wounded in bomb attacks at two mosques in the capital, the deadliest attacks since the end of the Lebanese civil war. Mounting 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.
A series of explosions have targeted Hezbullah strongholds in Lebanon as a result of its armed involvement in the Syrian conflict. Those explosions also targeted Tripoli, a Sunni majority city in the north, and the city witnessed clashes between Sunni and Alawite armed men. The Lebanese Army has been subject to attacks at several of its checkpoints. It became involved in armed clashes with Salafi militiamen, in Abra, Southern Lebanon in June 2013, and with the Syrian Jabhet An-Nousra in Esel in the Bekaa valley in the summer of 2014. Lebanese soldiers have been beheaded and others remain kidnapped.
Ersel, a small town near to the Syrian borders, is home to more than 135,000 Syrian refugees. Another 20,000 live in the surrounding mountains, an area that is now a stronghold for Syrian fighters. The civilians in the town fear that these armed factions would occupy it in the winter, an unbearable season in the mountains. Some 5,000 Lebanese soldiers and officers are in Ersel area. Lately, in retaliation for a crackdown on some of the refugee camps, hundreds took to the streets of Ersel calling for Al-Nusra (an Al-Queda linked militant group in Syria) to occupy Beirut. The coalition of the Syrian opposition criticised the Lebanese army's campaign, which damaged relations with the March 14 group, the Lebanese political alliance opposing the Syrian regime.
Placing even more strain on the Lebanese state is an immense influx of Syrian refugees since 2011. 1.5 million Syrians had fled to Lebanon by December 2013. This means that nearly one quarter of the population in Lebanon is now Syrian. This has put extraordinary pressure on already weak institutions.
In October 2016, former army commander and Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun was elected president. The post had been empty for more than two years, after multiple failed attempts to fill it.
Parliamentary elections are expected to be held in 2017, after parliament extended its own term by four years in 2014.
Last updated: October 2016