The Lebanese Civil War Explained
Ever since the Sykes-Picot agreement which dissolved the Ottoman Empire, many Middle Eastern nations have become a hodgepodge of different ethnic and religious groups within the same country. These ethnic and religious tensions often lead to civil wars, and the ramifications of Sykes-Picot are still visible today in Iraq and Syria. Out of all the Middle Eastern civil wars, few have been as bloody or brutal as the Lebanese civil war, which killed around 250,000 people and displaced countless others.
The situation in Lebanon was initially created by years of religious tensions between Christian and Muslim populations. Initially, when Lebanon gained independence from France, great care was taken to preserve balance of power among the differing religions. This was done via Lebanon’s consociationalism, which divided Parliament among Muslims and Christians, as well as gave each religion (Sunni Islam, Shia Islam, and Maronite Christianity) a seat of power. The President must be a Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni, and the Speaker of Parliament a Shia. However, this delicate balance began to break down in 1948, after the Arab-Israeli war. About 100,000 Palestinians fled to Lebanon, and Christian groups began to grow nervous. The Phalange, a Christian, authoritarian political party, had developed a paramilitary force of 10,000 to protect the Lebanese christian population. In response, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) formed, which demanded rights for Palestinians, as well as granted protection to Palestinian refugee camps. Later, the Christian general of the Lebanese army, Emile Boustani, granted the Palestinians self government, and granted permission to attack Israel.
Eventually, the Communist wing of the PLO set sights on Jordan (The PLO had Soviet backing), and attempted to overthrow the Jordanian government, which had maintained relations with Israel. After after an initial wave of conflict that killed about 1,000 people, followed by a peace agreement which later broke down, the PLO hijacked five Jordanian planes. In retaliation, Jordan waged a brutal war against the PLO, killing around 15,000 Palestinians. These well armed, battle-hardened PLO fighters fled back to Palestinian camps in Southern Lebanon, where they would sow the seeds for the Lebanese civil war. The secular ideology of the PLO in South Lebanon resulted in the formation of the Amal Movement, a predominantly Shia group that would protect Shia Muslims.
With three heavily armed groups, and a weak Lebanese military, conflict soon escalated. On April 13, 1975, the PLO attempted to assassinate a Phalange leader. In retaliation, the Phalange attacked a bus full of Palestinian nationals, killing 27. The situation rapidly devolved, and both sides had begun to wage war on eachother. In an attempt to stabilize the region, Syria intervened in 1976, and fought against the PLO. Interestingly, this also put the Syrian forces on the same side of the Phalange, though this would later change. In 1977, the number of Syrian forces in Lebanon escalated to 30,000. In 1978, the Syrian forces turned on the Christians, and attacked the Christian East-Beirut, in what was known as the “100 days war”. At this point, it was evident among all parties that Syrian intervention in Lebanon was solely motivated by territorial expansion, with little care for the stability of Lebanon itself. The Syrian Army and Christian forces fought outside of Beirut, which destroyed huge chunks of the city. President Sarkis of Lebanon now called for Syria to cease its intervention, as it had caused further instability rather than create stability. Syria, however, ignored this, and dug-in outside of Beirut. Beirut itself was now mostly divided, with the South controlled by the PLO, the East controlled by the Christian forces, and the North controlled by Syria.
Simultaneously, cross-border fire between the PLO and Israel escalated dramatically, and after a bus attack that killed 35, Israel invaded South Lebanon in March. Alarmed, the UN quickly passed resolutions demanding Israel pull out Lebanon. Israel obliged, pulling out of Lebanon six days after its invasion of Lebanon, and ceded its territory gained in Lebanon to its ally, the Christian South Lebanon Army (SLA). The United Nations subsequently established a buffer zone, and formed the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The SLA and PLO both begun to bombard UNIFIL positions, resulting in numerous deaths.
Source: Global Security
In 1980, the situation in Lebanon deteriorated further. The Phalangist forces launched a surprise attack against the Tiger militia, a Christian militia. While seemingly counter-intuitive, this was in fact part of Beshir Gemayel’s (The Christian Lebanese front Leader) effort to consolidate Christian forces under his rule. In what was known as the Safra Massacre, or the Day of the Long Knives, the Tiger militia was completely wiped out, and 500 Tiger militants died. Brutal fighting also occurred in the Christian town of Zahleh, where the Syrian army, aided by some members of the PLO, faced off against the LF (Lebanese Front) forces. After failed attempts to invade the predominantly Christian town, the Syrian army besieged Zahleh, repeatedly shelling the city. However, the LF managed to hold out, and the Syrian army ended up withdrawing from Zahleh, ending the siege. The Syrian advance had been halted, but only after hundreds of deaths, and the city of Zahleh nearly being destroyed.
In 1982, the war once again escalated when Israel invaded Lebanon for a second time, after the Israeli ambassador to Britain, Shmolo Argov, was shot and paralyzed. The Israelis used this as pretext for an invasion, and on June 6, 1982, invaded Southern Lebanon to destroy the PLO. While initially only meant to destroy the PLO militant camps, who had been firing across the Lebanon-Israeli border, the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) ended up on the outskirts of Beirut, which was at the time held by the PLO and Syria. The IDF bombarded Beirut for 70 days, and cut off electricity to the city. Israel destroyed much of the city, but they failed to kill key PLO leaders, like Yasser Arafat. Meanwhile, the international community condemned Israel for its brutality, with even the United States warning Israel about using American bought weapons for offensive purposes. After suffering heavy casualties, the PLO fighters were expelled from Lebanon, and most fled to Tunisia. The UN sent a peacekeeping force to Beirut, including hundreds of American marines.
However, Israel’s role in Lebanon did not end when the PLO was expelled from Lebanon. After Beshir Gemayel was killed in a bomb blast, the Christian and Phalange forces sought to avenge the death of their leader. The IDF allowed Phalangist forces to entire a Palestinian refugee camp, where they killed around 800 people, aided by Israeli flares to light up the camp. Appalled, President Reagan expressed his ““outrage and revulsion over the murders”, a drastic change of tone in the Israeli-US relationship. Palestinians were also incredibly angry, and many took up arms against the IDF.
Earlier, in 1979, the Iranian revolution occurred, and the first Islamic Republic was proclaimed. Alarmed by a Persian theocracy on his border, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Khomeini's Islamic Iran, and the Iran-Iraq war began. Iran had virtually no allies at this point: Khomeini had imprisoned communists, losing Soviet support, and had ousted the former pro-western Shah of Iran. Meanwhile, Iraq had nearly the entire world backing it. Iranians became paranoid, and hyper nationalistic. Eager to spread their Islamic Revolution, Iran began to back Hezbollah, a group of radical Shia muslims who broke away from the Amal Movement. Hezbollah also joined forces with Druze militias, and the Hezbollah-Druze forces fought the LF.
Hezbollah immediately struck at the United States. On October 23, 1983, a Hezbollah suicide truck crashed into the US Marine barracks and detonated, killing 241 US Marines. The brutal attack prompted the US to get out of Lebanon in 1984, leaving Hezbollah as another force that opposed Israel and the LF.
Hezbollah also begun to fight a vicious war against the Amal Movement for control of Lebanon’s Shia populace, in what was known as the War of the Camps. The Amal Movement (which now was backed by Syria), in an effort to consolidate power, attempted to besiege and attack Palestinian camps. The Syrian-Amal coalition managed to take West Beirut and a number of Palestinian camps. Iran-backed Hezbollah, however, sided with the Palestinians, and after brutal fighting in West Beirut, managed to mostly drive the Syrian Army out of Beirut by 1988. At this point, the Amal Movement was now largely at peace with Hezbollah, but the parties are still bitter rivals today.
Hezbollah’s attack on the IDF was also a success. Hezbollah launched several suicide attacks against the Israeli forces in Lebanon, and by 1985, had withdrawn from most of Lebanon, establishing a “security zone” in South Lebanon. Nevertheless, Hezbollah continued its relentless offensive. The remaining Christian forces (South Lebanon Army) were now almost totally wiped out, as Hezbollah launched waves of attacks, against both Israeli troops and citizens. Israel, however, continued to launch counter-offensives in Lebanon.
In 1989, the Taif Agreement was signed, officially bringing the Lebanese civil war to an end. Syrian forces finally withdrew from Lebanon in 2005, ending a 29 year involvement in Lebanon. However, other parts of the Taif Agreement were not honored, most notably the disarmament clause, which stated that all parties were to disarm. Hezbollah did not abide by this, because none of the parties involved in the war trusted each other. Hezbollah’s refusal to disarm led to further conflict in Southern Lebanon, including a deadly Israeli air-raid in 1996 as retaliation for Hezbollah’s shelling of Northern Israel. Nevertheless, by 2000, Israeli forces withdrew from Lebanon, although they continue to dispute territory with Hezbollah and Lebanon. This disputed territory does occasionally lead to conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, most notably in 2006. Hezbollah, backed by Lebanon, Syria, and Iran, had continued artillery fire into Northern Israel, and Israel retaliated in 2006, with bombings and blockades of Lebanon, killing over 1000 Lebanese civilians. However, the war was a stalemate.
The effects of the Lebanese civil war are still apparent today. Osama Bin Laden cited the siege of Beirut as justification for 9/11. Hezbollah is still an active political party in Lebanon, and they are also visible in Palestine, where they engage in cross-border fire with Israel. Regardless, the Lebanese civil war was no doubt one of the most brutal, bloody, and complex civil wars in history. Unfortunately, it looks like Syria may be going the same way as Lebanon.