A country with less than 5 million legal residents – hosting nearly 2 million refugees, 1 million of those recently displaced by the brutal civil war in Syria. A government, which ranks 144th on a list of 144 countries with regards to public trust in politicians (ranked by the world economic forum). A state without a president, in which the two dominant political groups perpetuate two completely different geopolitical objectives. Lebanon – battleground for Iranian and Saudi Arabian proxies – is balancing on razor’s edge. The small country is easy to miss on a map – but understanding its history and plight is crucial to understanding the essence of modern conflict in the Middle East.
The root of diversity – religio-historical context
The region that’s sometimes referred to as the Levant or ‘Sham’ in the Arabic world (meaning north), has been a melting pot for religious and cultural diversity since the inception of Islam. While the medieval inquisition in Europe brutally eradicated religious sects and subgroups, the lords, caliphs and sultans reigning over parts of ‘Sham’ (which encompasses Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and parts of Iraq) realised that ruling over the theologically fractured land was far easier by tolerating diversity rather than quenching it. In the Middle East Christians of Catholic, Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Orthodox and Maronite faiths could live relatively unperturbed. The Muslim lords (often conquerors) saw significantly less opposition from the conquered if their culture and faith were left to them. Consequentially, before the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, Damascus par exempla was home to Sunni, Shia, Alevite, Druze and Ismaili Muslims. This religious diversity, along with the historical prevalence of local rule was the reason for ‘Arabs’ not identifying as Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi or Palestinian, but as Muslim, Christian or Jew or as Sunni, Shia or Alevite; maybe even as resident of this town or that town. This mentality went undisturbed until and even beyond the Sikes-Picot agreement of 1916, when Britain and France divided up the conquered regions of the Ottoman Empire into mandates. Egypt and Iraq fell under British rule while Lebanon and Syria became French.
Even then, the artificial division did rather little to impact the social implications of being Muslim, Jew or Christian (or to which sect or group one belonged). ‘Nationality’ was still highly artificial – as opposed to the European model, where nations like France, England and Sweden can look back at a long, proud national narrative. And in spite of the absence of national unity, competing faiths were tolerated.
But tolerance does not imply acceptance. Since Islam’s early history, Muslim missionaries saw Jews and Christians as ‘people of the book’ – praying to the one and only God. The Bible and the Torah however, were (according to devout Muslims) inherently flawed due to being partially penned centuries after the teachings of God’s prophets had been heard. Islam sees Judaism and Christianity as an imperfect predecessor to Muhammed’s teachings – consequentially, Jews and Christians were tolerated as ‘protected people’ by Islamic governments and rulers. Still, these rulers insisted on Islam’s claim for superiority over all religions. Christians and Jews were required to pay higher taxes and were frequently barred from official posts.
The root of resentment – fuelling religious conflicts
Out of political expedience (or out of religious superiority complexes, who knows what the colonialists of old thought) the French imperialist leaders began to favour Maronite Christians in the newly founded province of ‘Mont Liban’ (a part of modern-day Lebanon, home to a Maronite majority). With a narrative of European and Christian supremacy, Maronite Christians were admitted to French schools, the best and brightest were educated in European metropoles like Paris. Maronite Christians were offered government posts – having been previously subjugated as ‘tolerated, but not accepted’, this aligned the Maronite Christians with the colonial lords. Similarly, France favoured the Alevite Muslim group in Syria (who tend to be more open to Christian ideas, embracing the idea of three manifestations of God as well as not being rigid with regard to prayer and symbolic religion). The French and the British were ‘dividing and conquering’.
By doing so, they had driven the biggest rift between the Muslims of Christians of the Middle East since the crusades. Even then, several Christian minorities had devotedly fought against the European crusaders. But the anger and resentment in the 19th century – initially targeted against western colonialism – culminated in an anger against the perceived new Christian crusade. In Damascus (before the Sykes-Picot agreement) this resentment became the death sentence for 3,000 Christians. As an angry mob wiped Churches clean off the map, the 9th of July 1860 showed how big the rift between religions was becoming. The French government saw itself reaffirmed in courting Maronite Christians – aiming to hand leadership in the Middle East to European-minded, more ‘civilised’ thinkers. In the following time, Lebanon flourished economically. Beirut overtook Damascus and Aleppo in terms of trade – and until the civil war of 1975, very little would change about that.
With World War Two, ‘Mont Liban’ was expanded into ‘Grande Liban’ – today’s Lebanon. And the Maronite Christians led this province still. But ‘Grande Liban’ was home to more Muslims than Christians (in the smaller, old province, Maronite Christians had been a majority). Utilising this unrepresentative political inequality and capitalising on the absence of attention from French forces (being preoccupied in Europe) Arabic nationalists won one great victory – through mass unrest, France had to grudgingly grant independence in 1943. The state had received its constitution in 1926.
An explosive barrel
The colonial powers had left a volatile situation in Lebanon. In the revised constitution of 1943, Maronite Christians were still favoured. Only a Maronite could become president the spot of prime minister was reserved for a Sunni Muslim, the leader of parliament was to be Shia Muslim. But in the 60s, Shia Muslims became the largest demographic group – yet occupying the least political power and the least socioeconomic strength.
The barrel exploded in 1975 – Sunni, Shia and Druze Muslims rebelled against the ruling
minority. However, in a turn reminiscent of the developments in the current Syrian civil war, tension between the rebel groups escalated and threw the country into complete chaos. Meanwhile, Lebanon had been a base for Palestinian attacks against Israel since the 1960s, drawing ire and retaliation from the south. This had destabilised the political body and added to the discontent of the Lebanese population. Later, the Middle Eastern superpowers of Saudi Arabia and Iran would prop up the Sunni and Shia fractions respectively – from 1975 onwards, these two major players in the Sunni – Shia conflict starting investing in their own proxy interests in Lebanon.
A new occupation
In 1976 – 8 months after the outbreak of the civil war, the Syrian army marched into Lebanon. With a mandate from the ‘Arab League’, Hafez Assad (whose
last name means ‘Lion’) had domestically channelled the sentiment of Arabic nationalism – a rare sight until the 19th century. Yearning to cut the shackles of western imperialism, pan-Arabic nationalists such as Egyptian dictator Nasser aimed to unite the north of the Arab world. Syrian nationalists – such as the followers of Assad’s Baath party, dreamed of ‘Sham’, too. Additionally to conquering Lebanon, nationalists propagated, Palestine and Israel should be recaptured to right historic wrongs. The western idea of a ‘nation state’ and ‘national pride’ had arrived in the Middle East.
From 1976 onward, Assad sent more and more troops – building on the peacekeeping mandate until 35,000 Syrian soldiers occupied Lebanon in 1980 (reminder: less than 5 million residents). On the international stage, Damascus was applauded for peacekeeping and repressing civil war. And after five years, fighting had ceased. But the tensions between the Sunni and Shia proxies were still glowing. Meanwhile, the Syrian peacekeeping mission showed no signs of ending – in 1995, propaganda posters of Hafez Assad still greeted travellers at Beirut’s airport, Lebanese president (still a Maronite) Elias Hrawi could be found in a small hall at the back.
The Baath party made full use of its quasi-province, sending its own unemployed to Lebanon. Said state in 1995 housed 700,000 Syrian workers. That is roughly 12% of the Lebanese population. Additionally, 100,000 Palestinian refugees had fled after the Israeli war – and the number has not stagnated since.
Withdrawal and the death of a lion
In 2000, the full force of anti-imperial hatred turned against Assad and Baath. Hafez Assad had died in 2000 and left office to his son, Bashar. Then, in February 2005, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (as the constitution commands, a Sunni Muslim) was assassinated. A large proportion of the disenfranchised, but angry Lebanese citizens rallied to join the Cedar revolution’s protests against Assad and the Syrian army was ousted from the country under international pressure. While the Cedar revolution found a common enemy in the Syrian occupants, rebellious splinter groups did not put aside their mutual rivalry. And now that the autocratic constant had been removed, violence broke out between Iranian and Saudi proxies. The March 8 and March 14 groups (named after the protest movements as a result of which they were founded) aligned themselves with a political course. Domestically, March 8 takes a position similar to that of the Baath party in Syria: left-leaning with regards to social issues, nationalist rather than religious, with pan-Arabic elements. Geopolitically, the parties under the March 8 umbrella want to align themselves with the Syrian government and are strongly supported by Hezbollah. The March 14 group is Lebanese-patriotic and opposes Syrian influence, consequentially aligning themselves with Saudi Arabia against Iran. The March 14 Alliance blamed Damascus for Hariri’s death while the March 8 Alliance saw the Israeli Mossad responsible. A chain of assassinations between the two groups followed, leaving prominent leaders on both sides dead. Much of the coordination in both fractions suffered, leading to further violence.
The disputes between the two groups create a fragile political climate in Lebanon, a country that is already battered by a series of conflicts.Having been a target of attacks by Palestinian extremists and later Hezbollah since the 60s, in 2006 Hezbollah airstrike that killed three Israelis was the metaphorical final drop in the bucket for the Israeli state. A military retaliation followed, leaving 1,200 Lebanese dead. In 2007, the Lebanese army clashed with the Palestinian Fatah, killing in excess of 400. In 2008, the then ruling March 14 alliance fought Hezbollah until granting the opposition voting rights ended 18 months of military activity from Teheran’s proxy. This was the beginning of a shift in political favour towards March 8: after five years of pro-Saudi Arabian rule, Najib Mikati – candidate of the March 8 alliance – was elected Prime Minister.
The game of thrones between Riyadh and Teheran comes at a terrible time for the people of Lebanon – the ruling March 8 group is closely tied to Iran, but Lebanon has been receiving yearly grants of 4 billion US dollars from Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials have threatened to cut this aid – not an advantageous thought for Lebanon, which is currently 70 billion US dollars in debt (that’s 145% of its GDP). And at this time, with Saudi influence in Lebanon dwindling, the Lebanese army stands behind Syrian president Bashar al-Assad – a man who King Salman wants to oust out of office, if necessary with military might. And the tsunami of refugees fleeing from ISIL and al-Nusra has completely overwhelmed the makeshift March 8/Hezbollah leadership – understandable, as the country hosts 30% of its own population in refugees. Without the substantial help from UNHCR and the international community, the situation would be even direr – not just for the residents of Lebanon. It’s not a question of whether a complete collapse of authority in Lebanon would reinvigorate the fires of brutality in Syria – it’s a question of how much fuel would be added to the raging flames.