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February 19, 2007

Roots of Injustice Push Lebanon Toward Civil War


by Antoun Issa

"Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion," – Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran 1883 – 1931

From the ashes of The Great War came hope to a region long forgotten behind the Ottoman cloud. The vacating Turkish troops from the Arab lands of the Middle East ended a reign of more than 400 years. For a region that has watched the greatest empires and conquerors pass through, the post-World War I era brought a chance to take charge of a land long ruled by outsiders.

The victorious Allied forces marched through the ancient gems of Jerusalem, Damascus, Beirut and Baghdad, giving promise to its peoples who have dwelled in their cities’ shadows for centuries.

But much like the Middle East’s previous conquerors, the new armies only sought a prize. The region’s new lords, France and Britain, decided to carve the area up into a chessboard, each lord claiming his piece. The Syrian desert now fell within three states, the Dead Sea now had a boundary running through its core, and a famous mountain range was proclaimed an entity.

The French and British rewarded tribes and sects it held long relations with. The British drew Kuwait out of the Basra equation as a gift to the loyal tribes of the area. The French made a similar arrangement with the Maronite Christian sect of Mount Lebanon – an Eastern Catholic sect loyal to the Vatican.

France and the Maronites

The Maronite history belongs to Mount Lebanon, which has provided the sect security from Byzantine Orthodox armies and later Islamic invaders. Their links with the West were cemented when they supported the Crusades over a thousand years ago.

The particular relationship between Paris and the Maronite Church runs deep in history. As France championed the cause of proselytizing Catholicism during the 17th and 18th centuries, it developed a bond with the Middle East’s Catholic minorities, in particular the Syriac Maronites.

French troops landed in Beirut in the 1850s to stop the bloodshed between the Maronites and the Druze – an offshoot Shi’ite Muslim sect which also has profound roots in Mount Lebanon.

When the French returned again in 1919, they stayed, and built a state for their Catholic allies. Paris had originally intended to create a state on Mount Lebanon where the Maronites formed a majority. It was only after complaints from the Maronite Patriarch that France then decided to extend the boundaries, including the Sunni regions of Tripoli, Beirut and the Shiite dominated provinces that now make up south and east Lebanon.

The New Lebanon

France left an independent Lebanon in 1946, and drafted a complex internal political system designed to cater for an unusual amalgamation of the different religious sects.

Three main religious sects now formed the base of Lebanon – the Maronite Catholics in the mountains, Sunni Muslims on the coastal north and Beirut, and Shi'ite Muslims to the south and east. Smaller sects such as the Druze and Orthodox Christians were concentrated in various regions throughout the country.

This extraordinary melange of various rival Muslim and Christian denominations was now placed under a single roof, with a single flag and a single anthem. The French did not make things easier by altering the balance of power before they vacated their creation.

Although on an equal footing with Muslims in population terms, the Christians commanded a higher share of parliament seats, and the most important centers of power were reserved for the Maronites, including the presidency. The second and third most influential chairs of power – the Prime Ministry and the Speaker of Parliament – were offered to a Sunni and Shi’ite respectively.

Essentially, post-French mandate Lebanon was now a Maronite Christian-run entity. The influx of European ideologies also shaped the political landscape of Lebanon at the time. Nationalism, communism and fascism flooded the Middle East. The main Christian parties took a turn to right-wing fascism and invented "Lebanese nationalism" as their main drive. Muslim factions reactively turned left and sought communism and socialist-based Arab and Syrian nationalism.

On the ground, class divisions were paramount and began taking sectarian form. Traditionally wealthy Sunni families of Beirut maintained their status as Lebanon’s upper class. The Maronites received a boost on an economic level as a result of their ascension to power, although many poor Christians remained in East Beirut and beyond into the mountains. The spot of the underclass was left for the Shi’ites.

The wealth of the Sunnis ensured their livelihood and power remained under Maronite-dominated rule. The Maronites evidently with their access to government funds directed their goldmine to developing Christian areas. Nothing was spared for Lebanon’s Shi’ites, who were shut out of the country’s political and economic structure.

Pre Civil War

Muslims were disgruntled of a system favorable to the Maronites and wanted a greater share in the Switzerland of the Middle East. Arab and Syrian nationalism – both championed by Orthodox Christian leaders – became the counter ideologies to the Maronites’ "Lebanese nationalism."

Egypt’s popular Arabism push led by leader Gamal Abdel Nasser received great support among Lebanon’s Sunnis and Druze, who desired the state’s inclusion into the Egypt-Syria union of 1958. The Maronite President Camille Chamoun turned to the United States for assistance, and American marines were sent to prevent a Nasserist coup.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict had also placed enormous pressure on Lebanon’s already tense internal fabric. Israel’s creation saw a mass exodus of Palestinian refugees pour into Lebanon, all of whom still reside in neglected UN refugee camps.

The Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) arrival to Lebanon, after being forced out of Jordan in 1970, added to the dynamics of Lebanon’s internal woes. Yasser Arafat’s PLO was heavily supported, armed and financed by Arab regimes, and Lebanon now became his base of operations. The Christian-dominated Lebanon could not ruin its relations with the Arab world, and conceded to allow a PLO presence in the impoverished Shi'ite populated South Lebanon.

The Maronites felt uncomfortable with a powerful Palestinian presence in the country. They greatly desired the PLO’s eviction, but the Palestinians found allies among Lebanese Muslims and leftists.

Guns Drawn Out

The Palestinian presence in Lebanon gave the Muslims and leftists an opportunity to challenge right-wing Maronite power. A tug of war ensued, crippling the country to a stalemate. Lebanon was on the verge of exploding, and it did.

The army fragmented, militias were formed, and the bombs began to fall. Old tribal rivalries reasserted themselves in an orgy of bloodletting throughout the country. Fearing the collapse of the Christian order, Syria’s Alawite regime intervened, sending forces to back the Maronite-led Government in 1976.

Seeking a chance to destroy Arafat’s PLO once and for all, the Israelis also decided to invade Lebanon in 1982. By then, the Syrians had withdrew their support for the right-wing Christians, and in turn decided to back the Muslims, Druze and leftists. Overwhelmed by the prospect of defeat, the Maronites quickly sought an ally in Israel.

Throughout the remainder of the conflict, Lebanon’s internal divisions would be exploited and manipulated by regional and foreign powers for their interests. On the battleground, Israel and Syria fought each other’s Lebanese proxies, but rarely each other. At times, the two armies were only a hilltop away, but no exchange of fire was ever recorded.

The Israelis and Syrians were content to fight their war via Lebanon rather than through the Golan Heights. Both viewed Lebanon essential to their own security. The Israelis wanted to secure their northern region from guerrilla attacks, while the Syrians were all too aware that its deep and natural links to Lebanon could be used against it.

The Shi'ite Revival

In its initial phases, the civil war registered only one main Shi'ite faction – the Amal Movement, led by Nabih Berri. Amal became a potent faction, receiving assistance from Syria. It remained close to Damascus even after the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Despite its militant strength, Amal did not command the respect or support of the majority of Lebanon’s underprivileged Shi’ites. Most Shi’ites were frustrated at the PLO’s presence in their southern villages, who used them as bases to attack Israel. Israeli reprisals often ended up with Shi'ite casualties. As the Jewish state moved into southern Lebanon, Israeli tanks were showered with rice as local Shi’ites celebrated the eviction of the PLO.

The rice soon became bullets as Israel took on the Lebanese tradition of neglecting the Shi’ites and committed atrocities in the South. It would become a catastrophic error on Israel’s part, as Iran stepped in to take advantage of the disgruntled Shi’ites.

Tired of being killed for other peoples battles, the Shi’ites turned to Tehran who was eager to assist in their revival. Iran helped form the creation of Hezbollah – the Party of God – which was designed to mimic Iran’s theocracy with its own Islamic entity to govern all of Lebanon.

Tehran sent its highest regiment, the Revolutionary Guards, to Lebanon to train Hezbollah militants to fight the Israeli occupation, which was based in Shi’ite regions. The Islamic Resistance, along with Syria’s backed Lebanese National Resistance Movement, was successful in delivering severe blows to the Israeli Army, and eventually forcing Israel’s retreat to a buffer zone close to the border.

Syrian Domination

The end of the Civil War was brokered in 1990 in Ta'if, Saudi Arabia, later to be known as the Ta'if Agreement. It would reshuffle Lebanon’s sectarian political system to provide an equilibrium between Muslims and Christians. Indeed, the parliament was now split 50/50 between the two religious communities.

However, the attempt was futile and failed to truly represent Lebanon’s religious diversity. The Civil War witnessed a large exodus of Sunni Muslims and Christians, altering the country's demographics. The Christians no longer represented a majority of the population, and the number of Shi’ite Muslims increased as many Sunnis fled. These changes were not registered under Ta'if, and the Shi’ites were once again left on the perimeters of Lebanon’s internal political system.

The post-war sidelining by Lebanon’s political elites did not trouble the Shi’ites as much this time. Iran and Syria took charge, via Hezbollah, to govern the Shi'ite regions. Hezbollah began to erect schools and hospitals in the long-neglected southern and eastern regions of Lebanon. It provided free clinics, free education, even free electricity. Its desire was to lift Lebanon’s Shi’ite community, long abused throughout history, from the slums. All of which was provided by Iranian funds and Syrian support.

Syria retained a 30,000 troop presence in Lebanon, asserting its authority over the country, with Washington’s approval. The Syrians rewarded its proxies by giving them the keys to political office. Lebanon’s Sunnis and Druze rose to power in the government, while Hezbollah and the Shi’ites were allowed to govern their regions.

The Christians now became the weaker power within the country, but ironically Syria’s presence provided a stabilizing effect that would ensure peace and calm for the next 15 years. Stability in Lebanon was a consensual agreement among the world and regional powers, and Syria was to provide it, however corrupt and unjust.

Saudi-based Lebanese Sunni entrepreneur Rafik al-Hariri rose to fame as the man Damascus elected to reconstruct Lebanon. Government positions were filled with Syria’s Lebanese allies. Sunni seats were taken up by Hariri and pro-Syrian northern Sunni clans; the Druze positions were given to Walid Jumblatt, leader of the PSP and then-Syrian ally; Amal took up the government’s Shi'ite posts; and the chairs symbolizing Christian power remained in Maronite hands, only they went to the Christians who aligned with Syria such as Sleiman Frangiyeh.

Hariri and Syria had a deep and valuable relationship. Hariri’s property company, Solidere, ran a monopoly to reconstruct Beirut by using one million cheap Syrian laborers. The deal gave Syria the opportunity to keep its economy breathing by unloading its unemployed unto Lebanon, while massively boosting Hariri’s personal profits by allowing him a monopoly with cheap costs.

In reality, Hariri only reconstructed the Sunni-populated west and downtown Beirut. This spectacle contrasts sharply to the Christian East Beirut, which is a jungle of concrete apartment blocs built on any available scrap of vacant land, or the severely impoverished Shi'ite southern Beirut suburbs, now a Hezbollah stronghold.

The guns may have fell silent, but the divisions still lingered. No national leader ever rose during the Syrian period to provide a vision for all. Instead, sectarian warlords were empowered, and governed their regions as if they were each an entity separate from one another. The only difference with Hezbollah was that they had weapons.

Little of the Lebanese landscape from the civil war had changed. The sectarian barriers throughout the country remained, little to no interaction was made between people from the various sects and regions. All were resigned to their own cantons where their sect or faction was dominant. The sole reason no guns were being fired was because an American-approved Syrian force of 30,000 ensured the Lebanese weren’t slaughtering each other.

Beirut life had been restored, nonetheless. Designer shops re-opened, tourists flooded back, nightclubs and bars began to flourish. But Hariri’s glamourous Beirut was for a population who could not afford it. Desperately needed social services were absent, corruption was rife among the ruling warlords, and Syria’s presence was becoming a burden.

Christian calls for Syria’s withdrawal were constant for the last 15 years, but often silenced and ignored. The Clinton Administration was content with Syria’s stabilizing force in Lebanon as its interests in the Middle East were to find a peaceful end to the conflict. For peace in the Middle East to be given a chance, Lebanon’s warring tribes had to be kept silent.

The Policeman Is Sacked

The change in the status quo in Lebanon began with a change of leadership in Washington. George W. Bush’s ascension to power brought along a radically divergent vision from Clinton’s intentions for peace. The September 11th attacks in 2001 delivered to Bush the opportunity to embark on the neocon plan of the Middle East.

The US no longer sought an end to the conflict in the Middle East, but instead decided that it was possible to place the region under American domination. Bush ignored then-Palestinian President Yasser Arafat until the day he died, destroying all hope of peace with Israel. The fundamental core of the conflict in the Middle East was now left dangerously wide open by Washington.

The neocons continued by including Iran and Iraq in an axis of evil, then later invading Iraq. As far as Lebanon was concerned, the Bush Administration wanted to isolate and weaken Syria enough to force the Assad regime to collapse.

The first step in achieving this goal was to push Syria out of Lebanon. The task was easily achievable after Rafik al-Hariri’s assassination prompted a wave of anti-Syrian sentiment and mass protests that forced Damascus to leave. But the crisis in Lebanon did not bring down the Ba'athist regime in Syria, as hoped by Bush.

Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims rallied behind Hariri’s son, Saad al-Hariri, as did the Druze, to form an anti-Syrian coalition with their old wartime rivals, the right-wing Maronite factions. Syria was now confronting the very people it empowered. Allies turned enemies with the push of a button.

Hezbollah was left out of the equation. The Shi'ite party had little interest in Lebanon’s internal affairs and was content to minding its own business in its regions. However, Syria’s presence provided an essential security for Hezbollah that was no longer there. Along with Syria’s withdrawal began calls for the Islamic Resistance’s disarmament.

Lebanon of Today

The "Party of God" dug its heels and vigorously supported Syria in the face of former Lebanese allies who now turned against it. But as Lebanon’s unusual alliance swaps momentarily worked against Hezbollah and Syria, the tide started to turn back in their favor.

Before the end of the civil war, the Lebanese Maronites fought a bitter internal battle. General Michel Aoun commanded the Lebanese Army against the Israeli-backed Maronite militia, the Lebanese Forces (LF), led by Samir Geagea. During Syrian control, both were silenced. Geagea was imprisoned, and Aoun fled to exile in France.

The Syrian withdrawal saw both men return to the Lebanese political scene, and once again, opposed to one another. Geagea joined the Sunni-Druze anti-Syrian coalition, while Aoun forged an alliance with Hezbollah, polarizing the Christian community.

After long ignoring Lebanon’s internal mess, Hezbollah has now actively engaged it, realizing it can no longer live as a state within a state. Israel’s failed war against it last summer prompted it to change the political landscape in Lebanon, fearing a pro-American government will betray it.

The Opposition, led by Hezbollah and Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), today seeks to remove the anti-Syrian coalition from the seats of power. Mass protests and violent strikes have been staged, with the country once again at a stalemate. However, the Opposition revolt is more or less class defined as it is political. The Ta'if Agreement failed to grant the Shi’ites their fair share. They now represent the largest sole religious sect, although not a majority. Yet the internal political structure still grossly favors Sunnis, Druze, and to a lesser extent, Christians.

The anti-Syrian coalition are calling for Hezbollah’s disarmament, but its weapons are vital to Shi’ite power in the country. Without Hezbollah’s weapons, the Shi’ites will return to the slums of Lebanon, silenced, forgotten, and neglected. The Iranian-backed party is forcing the rest of Lebanon to grant Shi’ites a greater say in the country by forcing the pro-American government to cede its power.

Aoun’s Christian supporters are drawn mainly from the community that suffered the most under Syrian domination. The Christians lost their prestige under Syria’s rule, and were incredibly disfavored. The FPM have offered a secular, national, corrupt-free approach as its slogan to resolve Lebanon’s problems. This rings exceptionally well for Lebanon’s Christians who are disenchanted by conflict, corruption and chaos.

Inequalities Persist

Complaints of a system favoring one side over another was the cause of Lebanon’s last civil war. One faction wanted to keep its dominance, the other was angered by being left to scavenge the crumbs.

Today’s arguments sing a similar song. Regardless of which sect is in charge, all seem unwilling to relinquish any power once they grab a hold of it. The creation of Lebanon was folly and extraordinary. It tore off towns and families from those across the Syrian border, and instead tossed them into a pot that does not mix.

For all of Lebanon’s short existence the various sects have been fighting each other for the greatest share. Their quest against their own has only brought the country misery and destruction. Ironically, while no one has benefited from the unequal balance, the Lebanese have all equally suffered.

 

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Antoun Issa is a Lebanese-Australian journalist. Visit his blog.

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