During the recent Israeli-Lebanese war, it became clear that many pundits (including the president of the United States) seemed not at all familiar with Lebanon's recent troubled history. Many seemed to implicitly assume that Hezbollah fell from the sky, and started causing mischief, abetted by the Lebanese government in Beirut. Hence a military solution would wipe out Hezbollah and everyone could go home happy.
But even a cursory review of the Lebanese civil war (1975-90) should have brought such thinking to a grinding halt. One clear lesson from the civil war is that violence not only begets further violence, but does so in unpredictable (almost random) ways. Lebanon's delicate confessional balance is always a powder keg, and the last thing it needs is an external actor setting it alight. The civil war has shown this again, again, and again.
What I would like to do here is present a very brief history of the civil war, showing that the latest conflagration is really a continuation of an unresolved longer-term struggle. It is intended, as the title says, to be very simple and brief: readers are directed to a detailed version here, and a very short version here. Even better, try to get your hands on the 15-hour Al-Jazeera documentary that is so balanced that all sides criticized it! If nothing else, the civil war was a fascinating period that makes for compelling reading. It has it all: passion, intrigue, betrayal, sharp plot twists and turns, and a stunning array of colorful characters. It is also incredibly complicated, and at time, difficult to understand. The summary below is not meant to capture all the nuances.
But, of course, this was not a movie. There was a dark side to the war, one which should be borne heavily in mind before cheerleading for a “military solution” (on all sides). The results were devastating for Lebanon: 144,000 dead, nearly 200,000 wounded, 3,641 car bombs, 800,000 displaced, and 950,000 leaving the country.
OK, so here is the story.
Cast of characters
The main players, a short and incomplete list.
Lebanese Forces (Christian): Bashir Gemayel, Samir Geagea, Elie Hobeika
Progressive Socialist Party (Druze): Kamal Jumblatt, Walid Jumblatt
Amal (Shia): Musa al-Sadr, Nabih Berri
Palestinian Liberation Organization: Yasir Arafat
Syria: Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad
Israel: Menachim Begin, Ariel Sharon
Throughout the postwar period, there was increasing tension between the Maronites, who dominated the political scene and sought close ties with the west, and a growing Arab nationalist sentiment that attracted Muslims and secular leftists. When the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was added to the mix, everything exploded. The PLO was already ensconced in Lebanon in the 1960s and tensions increased. A compromise was reached with the Cairo agreement of 1969, granting Palestinian militants the right to keep weapons in their camps and attack Israel in the south, provided they respect Lebanese law and sovereignty. In 1970, the PLO was expelled from Jordan after failing to topple King Hussein and established their main base in Lebanon. This changed everything. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians entered the country, and the PLO, with about 23,000 troops, was now larger than the Lebanese army. Arafat grew bolder and began to misbehave, flouting Lebanese laws, setting up roadblocks and engaging in extortion, and harassing local populations.
As tensions mounted, other groups started to build up militias. The Lebanese National Movement (LNM) was founded by Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt, and was a secular left-wing umbrella group that was pro-PLO and opposed to what it perceived as excessive Maronite power. On the Christian side, Pierre Gemayel's Phalange party also built up its own militia, as did other groups. And the Lebanese army remained weak and divided.
Phase 1: Christians vs. PLO and Leftist Alliance
In 1975, as the political struggle between Jumblatt and Gemayel intensified, things turned in a more violent direction, as the PLO and Phalangists began to confront each other. Fighting broke out in the Northern towns of Tripoli and Zgharta, as conflicts between the PLO and local Maronite boss Suleiman Franjieh's militia escalated into kidnapping and violence. The LNM then joined the PLO and sacked downtown Beirut, and the Phalangists counterattacked. The hopelessly divided Lebanese army refused to intervene. Random killing became rampant, especially at illegal checkpoints. Around this time, Beirut became increasingly segregated between the (Christian) east and Muslim (west). In 1976, the Maronite militias over-ran the PLO's Karantina camp, killing many non-combatants. In retaliation, the PLO decimated the Christian town of Damour, where everybody who surrendered was executed. The country was in flames.
At this point, Syria stepped into the fray. The LNM appealed to Syrian president Assad for help. Syria's initial intervention was limited, mainly through Palestinian fighters under its control. Arafat then formed a key alliance with the main Sunni militia, al-Murabitun. As the Palestinian-Sunni-leftist alliance became stronger, Jumblatt began pushing more and more for a military solution. Assad felt that Jumblatt was more concerned with settling century’s old Druze-Christian scores than bringing stability to Lebanon. Moreover, he feared that a leftist-PLO victory would undermine Syria's role in the region, and bring on the wrath of Israel. Syrian troops then entered Lebanon, and were warmly welcomed by President Franjieh and the embattled Christians. Even Pierre Gemayel praised Assad at this point. Syrian intervention turned the tables, as the Maronites won a decisive victory over the PLO at the Tel al-Zaatar camp in East Beirut, which had long been seen as a major thorn in their side. An Arab League summit in Riyadh legitimized Syria's intervention in Lebanon, on the grounds of restoring peace. In 1977, Kamal Jumblatt was assassinated, most likely by the Syrians. He was replaced as leader of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) by his son Walid, although the LNM withered after his death. An uneasy peace ensued, but it did not last, as both the Christians and the Israelis grew increasingly concerned about the Syrian role in Lebanon.
Phase 2: Christians vs. Syrians
Maronite-Syrian relations grew increasingly hostile. President Sadat's detente with Israel in 1977 scared Assad, and he shifted sides yet again, backing the PLO. By this stage, the Christian militias had joined together to force the Lebanese Forces (LF), under the leadership of Bashir Gemayel, Pierre's son. To consolidate power, the LF attacked Franjieh's rival militia in the north, killing Tony Franjieh and his family. It became increasingly clear that Syria did not plan on leaving. Also, Bashir Gemayel reached out to the new Israeli Likud government led by Menachim Begin, which was more open to supporting the Christians. Conflict between the LF and the Syrian army escalated, and all-out war broke out again. The Syrians besieged the Phalangist stronghold of Ashrafiyah in East Beirut. President Sarkis called on Gemayel to stop the escalation, but to no avail. Beirut was laid waste yet again. Throughout this phase of the war, Gemayel relied on Israeli threats to restrain Syria. Another vicious major battle took pace at Zahle in the Bekaa valley, which the Syrians failed to take, boosting Gemayel's standing. But Israel had taken a small step toward intervention by shooting down some Syrian helicopters. The Israelis warned Syria not to install missiles in the Bekaa valley.
Phase 3: Israel vs. PLO
While the Syrians took the lead role in fighting the Christian militias, the PLO started making mischief again in southern Lebanon, prompting an Israeli invasion in 1978 ("Operation Litani"). Israel was supported by a break-away group of the Lebanese army led by Saad Haddad, which would become the South Lebanese Army (SLA), composed of Christians and Shias. Israel withdrew in 1978, but left the SLA in charge of its security zone.
The war quickly moved into its next phase, marked by full-scale Israeli invasion in 1982. The excuse was the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to the UK by the Abu Nidal organization, although the planned offensive was long in the works. The intention was to completely destroy the PLO and its infrastructure in Lebanon. The US supported Israeli actions by vetoing a UN resolution calling for Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. Given the tension between the PLO and the Shia in the south, the Israeli invasion, led by Ariel Sharon, was initially welcomed by the Shia, and the Amal militia offered no resistance. The Israelis easily destroyed the Syrian air defense system. Israel reached Beirut and began a 70-day siege, bombarding the city in an attempt to wipe out the PLO. Despite promises to Begin, Bashir Gemayel refused to join the Israeli offensive, figuring it would destroy his chances of ever becoming president (his ultimate ambition). After much diplomatic wrangling, Arafat agreed to withdraw from Beirut, and took 11,000 of his guerillas with him. Despite an abortive attempt to sneak back into the country through Tripoli, Arafat’s days in Lebanon were over. A multinational peacekeeping force then arrived in Beirut, which included some 800 US marines. Bashir Gemayel was finally elected president, but was assassinated only a few weeks later by a Syrian agent. His brother Amin became president instead.
Israeli claimed that PLO militants continued to hide in the Beirut-based Palestinian refugee camps. Sharon then entered Beirut, violating the agreement. The LF, under the command of Elie Hobeika, with the complicity of Sharon, broke into the Sabra and Shatilla camps and a major massacre of civilians ensued. The world was outraged.
Phase 4: Christians vs. Druze and Shia (and other Syrian allies)
With the multinational force in Beirut, Amin Gemayel declared the war to be over, and demolished the barricades that separated east and west Beirut. But, despite the presence of the multinational force, stability remained illusive. At this point in the war, the Shia rose to greater prominence. The Shia militia Amal largely stayed on the sidelines during the war. Its founder, Musa al-Sadr was a moderating influence during the early stages of the war, but he disappeared in Libya and nobody knows what happened to him (likeliest explanation: the Libyans killed him). The Iranian revolution changed things, and more militant groups (including what would eventually become Hezbollah) split from Nabih Berri's Amal around this time. One of these groups, Islamic Jihad, blew up the US embassy in Beirut in 1983.
Also at this time, the May 17 agreement called for peace between the Israel and Lebanon, with Israeli withdrawal condition on Syrian withdrawal. Syria simply refused to play along. In response to being sidelined, Syria put together the National Salvation Front (NSF), comprising Berri's Amal (Shia), Jumblatt's PSP (Druze), Rashid Karami's Sunnis, and the Christians who were loyal to Franjieh. The multinational force was now placed in the position of propping with a weakened Gemayel government. Israel was also reduced to keeping the peace between Christians and Druze in the Chouf mountains, and between Palestinians and Shia in the south.
Fighting then broke out, in 1983, between the Christian LF and the Druze PSP in the Chouf mountains, which became more ferocious as the Israelis withdrew. Walid Jumblatt declared his intention to ethnically cleanse the Chouf of Christians, and he was aided by the Syrians, Shia, Palestinians and secular leftists. In October 2003, Shia militants used suicide bombers to destroy both the US and French military compounds in Beirut, killing over 300 soldiers. Fingers pointed to Iran, Syria, and the PLO as co-conspirators. After an outbreak of fighting between Amal and the Lebanese army, the green line (dividing east and west Beirut) was re-established. Meanwhile, Jumblatt kept pushing to the sea. At the same time, the US and Israel told Gemayel to stick to the May 17 agreement.
The multinational force finally withdrew in early 1984. Berri (Amal) and Jumblatt (Druze PSP), now controlled west Beirut, not the Sunnis and Palestinians as before. Both supported Syria. Following Syrian pressure, a weakened Amin Gemayel abrogated the May 17 agreement. Syria was not leaving. Syria tried to install a "national unity government" under prime minister Rashid Karami, and created a new security accord (the Bikfaya accord). In September 1984, the US embassy annex in Beirut was attacked again, most likely by Hezbollah.
Phase 5: Shia vs. Palestinians
Meanwhile, the Palestinians were starting to stir again, especially in camps in Tyre and Sidon once Israel withdrew. By this stage, Amal (who controlled west Beirut) was hostile to the Palestinians, and joined with the Druze PSP to destroy the major Sunni militia, al-Murabitun, the last friend of the Palestinians in Lebanon. Then came the phase in the war known as the "war of the camps" between Amal (backed by Syria) and the Palestinians. Many of the camps (including Sabra and Shatilla) were decimated, but the Palestinians remained in control. This time the Druze joined the Palestinians against Amal. Meanwhile in the south, the Shia began to make life difficult for the Israelis, despite their common cause against the Palestinians. Israel withdrew to a narrow security zone, and started raiding Shia villages.
In 1986, the Syrian army re-entered west Beirut to curb the power of the militias. But a new round of vicious fighting now broke out between Syria's allies, Amal and the Druze. Syria sent in a huge deployment of troops to restore order. Syria now declared that its stay was "open-ended".
Phase 6: Christians vs. Christians
Meanwhile, the LF was dismayed by what the regarded as Gemayel's treachery over the Bikfaya accord. Tensions grew between Gemayel and the LF, as the president pressed for them to disarm and hand over the Port of Beirut in 1985, their major cash cow. One militia leader, Samir Geagea, refused to budge and took over the LF, sundering it from the Phalange party. Gemayel was weakened further. And after Israel left Sidon, a new round of fighting began between the LF on one hand, and a de facto Palestinian-Druze-Shia coalition on the other. A defeat by the LF forced Geagea to step down and Hobeika (of Sabra-Shatilla fame) took over.
Hobeika immediately decided to join Berri and Jumblatt-- as the leaders of the three key militias-- and do a deal with Syria (the "Tripartite Accord"). This agreement called for a ceasefire, a disarming of the militias, and a deeper integration between Lebanon and Syria. The Sunnis, with no remaining militia, protested their exclusion. Hobeika's actions drove the LF to split and fighting broke out between the partisans of Hobeika and Geagea, now backed by Gemayel who also rejected the accord. Geagea won, and became leader of the LF again. Hobeika sought Syrian protection.
Phase 7: Christians vs. Syria and allies
When Gemayel’s term of office ended in 1988, there was no agreement on a possible successor. So he appointed army commander Gen. Michel Aoun as interim prime minister pending elections. Although there was precedent, the appointment of a Maronite to a Sunni post was seen as provocative. Salim al-Hoss, with Syrian backing, set himself up as alternative prime minister in west Beirut (Rashid Karami had been assassinated). But Aoun, an incredibly stubborn man, refused to resign. In 1989, he used the Lebanese army to shut down the LF-run outfits, including the lucrative Port of Beirut. The LF acknowledged Aoun's leadership. Aoun then called for all illegal ports to be closed, many of which were controlled by the Syrian-backed militias. In response, Syria shelled east Beirut. Aoun then stepped up the ante, declaring a full-scale "war of liberation" against the Syrians. This led to an intense seven-month period of shelling between east and west Beirut. Geagea's LF joined Aoun. In return, the Syrian army was joined by Jumblatt's PSP and an assortment of Palestinians and leftists. After the Sunni mufti expressed some support for Aoun's position, he was assassinated.
Phase 8: Aoun vs. Everybody
Under the auspices of the Arab League, a meeting of parliamentarians in Taif, Saudi Arabia, led to an agreement to end the conflict. The agreement reduced the power of Maronites to some degree, but institutionalized the confessional structure, and ensured an equal number of Christian-Muslim parliamentary seats. But the agreement also seemed to cement Syria's role in Lebanon, giving no timetable for withdrawal, and for that reason it was rejected by Aoun. But the Taif supporters soldiered on and elected Rene Mouwad as president. But Mouwad refused to replace Aoun as army commander, and opposed any Syrian attempt to do so with force. In a replay of what happened to Bashir Gemayel, Mouwad was assassinated a couple of weeks later, and Elias Hrawi became president, with Selim al-Hoss as prime minister. Hrawi (having learned the lesson) dismissed Aoun.
However, Aoun was highly popular at this stage, and large demonstrations came to the presidential palace to support him: not only Christians, but Sunnis and Shias. Sunni leaders in west Beirut sent a "Muslim Solidarity Delegation" to support the increasing isolated Aoun. Meanwhile Geagea was being tempted by a government position under Taif, and dithered in his support for Aoun. Aoun then upped the ante (as usual!) and attempted to absorb the LF into the army. In 1990, war broke out between the Lebanese army and the LF. Both sides were heavily armed, thanks to Saddam Hussein's largesse. Syria stood back and watched its two major enemies destroy each other. By this stage, the LF was backing Taif.
Other events on the global stage turned the tide against Aoun. Seeking Syrian support in the Gulf War, the US turned against Aoun, and gave assurances that Israel would not interfere if Syria moved in to take him out. Aoun was now completely besieged in the presidential palace. The Syrian assault began in earnest in October 1990. Realizing he could not hold out, Aoun surrendered and sought refuge in the French embassy, eventually going into exile. Maronite leader Dany Chamoun, an Aoun supporter, was assassinated in east Beirut.
By this stage, the fighting was over. The militias were dissolved, with the exception of Hezbollah (on the grounds that it was fighting the continued Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon). Rafik Hariri became prime minister in 1992, and initiated a massive reconstruction program. Samir Geagea turned against the Syrians, and was sentenced to life imprisonment, the only civil war militia leader to be tried. Elie Hobeika was assassinated in 2002. Aoun remained in exile until his triumphant return in 2005. Berri and Jumblatt remained as active political leaders, and Hezbollah increased its power, as the only remaining armed militia.
Phase 9: Hezbollah vs. Israel
The final stage of the war revolved around an escalating Hezbollah-Israeli conflict. Hezbollah continued to cause mischief on Israel’s northern border. In 1993, Israel attacked southern Lebanon. A US-brokered agreement stated that both sides would refrain from attacking civilians. This broke down in 1996, and Israel attacked again, displacing large numbers of civilians. Another ceasefire agreement ended that round. But low intensity cross-border fighting continued. Ehud Barak finally withdrew troops from Lebanon after his election in 2000. The SLA disintegrated. Hezbollah kept up low-intensity operations against Israel, and Israel blamed Syria. In 2002, Hezbollah kidnapped a number of Israeli soldiers, an action it would repeat (with disastrous consequences) in 2006. In 2002, it supported the wave of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel, launching missiles over the border in solidarity with the old Shia nemesis, Yasir Arafat, now holed up in his West Bank headquarters.
This phase of the war escalated dramatically in July 2006, as in response to continued provocation, Israel invaded again, and launched a huge attack on Lebanon’s infrastructure. The apparent victory of Hezbollah has raised its stature in Lebanon and the region, and strained the Siniora coalition. For, at the same time as this ongoing conflict, there were other developments in Lebanon, developments which gave hope that the long war was finally over. Hezbollah’s actions threatened this hope.
Phase 10: Everybody vs. Syria and Shia allies (bloodless)
A new crisis in Lebanon began in 2004. Syria insisted that Lebanon amend its constitution to extend the term of office of president Emile Lahoud. Prime minister Hariri refused to go along. Hariri was summoned to Damascus and threatened. In alliance with Jumblatt, Hariri worked with the UN to bring about Resolution 1559, calling for Syrian withdrawal. Syria ignored the UN, and pressed ahead with its plan to amend the Lebanese constitution. Under duress, parliament granted Syria its request. A number of ministers resigned in protest and one of them, Marwan Hamade, was blown up with a car bomb (he survived).
Hariri then resigned as prime minister and planned on leading the anti-Syrian coalition in the next election. In February 2005, Hariri was assassinated. Jumblatt feared he would be next. In response, there was a huge outpouring of anti-Syrian and pro-Hariri feeling that crossed the confessional divide. This prompted the Cedar Revolution, an anti-Syrian alliance of Christians, Sunnis, and Druze that agitated, through massive demonstrations, for Syrian withdrawal. Ominously, Hezbollah organized a massive pro-Syrian demonstration, largely made up of Shias. But a week later, an even larger anti-Syrian demonstration, with up to 1 million people took place. Syria now faced an untenable position, completely isolated by the world. Syria's guilt in Hariri's assassination was now evident, as they (alongside Lebanese security services) were implicated in a UN report. It finally withdrew from Lebanon, after almost 30 years, in April 2005. Still, a number of bombs are set off in largely Christian neighborhoods, and a prominent anti-Syrian journalist was assassinated, as Syria tried to stoke the flames of civil war. Demonstrators also called for the resignation of president Lahoud, but to no avail.
The elections of May 2005 were decisive. The Saad Hariri group (the alliance formed under Hariri's son) won 72 of the 128 seats. Hezbollah and Amal won 35, with 21 going to Aoun's group (Aoun, still highly popular, had just returned from exile). The new government released Samir Geagea, who was reconciled with Aoun. Fouad Siniora became prime minister. Hezbollah joined the government, and received (for the first time) a couple of ministries.
The assassination of Hariri backfired on Syria, and gave Lebanon the chance to achieve a unity that had eluded it for more than 30 years. But the simultaneous struggle between Hezbollah and Israel threatened to derail this development. Israel clearly did not learn the lessons of history. Neither did the US. But this is not to let Hezbollah off the hook, for this organization refuses to let the civil war die, and continues to act as a surrogate for foreign powers, when all other groups have forsaken such a strategy.
So, what are the main lessons of the civil war, aside from the fact that it is unbelievably complicated?
First, large scale military actions typically backfire, and do not bring about solutions. This lesson was learned more than once by Syria, and by Israel, and by Aoun. In fact, military actions in Lebanon can have almost random, unpredictable effects given constantly shifting alliances. Only diplomatic solutions work. This means that all parties must be given a stake in the process, and none should have an incentive to renege.
Second, countries should not fight proxy wars in Lebanon. Everybody except Hezbollah seems to have learned that lesson by now. And diplomatic solutions only work when foreign countries stop trying to force their own agendas in Lebanon, or fight proxy wars. I’m talking mainly about Syria here, the chief mischief-maker in Lebanon for 30 years.
Third, achieving peace may mean holding ones nose and overlooking past atrocities. There were no innocent parties in the war (and by that I mean those entities that fought in it, not civilians). All sides are guilty of war crimes: the LF as well as the Druze, the Syrians and well as the PLO, Hezbollah as well as the Israelis. To single out Hezbollah for special attention, and to call for its elimination, overlooks the fact that many of the worst warlords are still in positions of authority. The key is to disarm them, to level the playing field, not to obliterate them, especially since they have such high support from their Shia base.