Primer: Lebanon's 15-Year War, 1975-1990

by Martha Wenger
published in MER162

Lebanon’s people have paid a tremendous price for 15 years of invasion and civil war -- an estimated 150,000 killed, tens of thousands wounded, and hundreds of thousands displaced and left destitute. Lebanon is the only developing country in which, despite high birth rates, population growth has stagnated and even declined in the last 15 years, from some 2.59 million in 1976 to 2.50 million in 1987, owing to war deaths and emigration.

The Issues

Lebanon’s war often seems as incomprehensible as it is unending. The conflict is complex, yet is it not necessary to know the names of the bewildering array of armed factions and political groups to understand the underlying inequalities of power and wealth that sparked and sustain the civil war. Some of the basic issues are these:

  • The rich/poor divide. Broadly, while Christians were overrepresented among the dominant and well-to-do, Shi‘i Muslims were overrepresented among the poor and working classes. But extreme disparities of wealth and poverty characterized nearly every sect.
  • Unequal distribution of power. An unwritten 1943 agreement, the National Pact, parcelled out top political posts by religious sect and froze representation in parliament at a 6-to-5 ratio of Christians to Muslims, based on a questionable 1932 census. Muslims have long been a majority in Lebanon, but Christian political elites have resisted challenges to their power.
  • Identity. Is Lebanon an integral part of the Arab world which should support Arab unity and Arab nationalism, as many Lebanese Muslims, especially Sunni Muslims, feel? Is Lebanon an inseparable part of the Muslim world, as some Shi‘i groups proclaim? Or is it a unique nation of minorities with a history and sensibility that is distinctively Lebanese, as many Lebanese Christians believe?
  • The Palestine Conflict. When 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon developed a strong resistance movement after 1967, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) relocated its headquarters to Beirut after 1970, Palestinians and Lebanese in the south became a major Israeli military target.
  • Foreign Interference. Syria and Israel claim hegemony over parts of Lebanon and conduct political and military campaigns using Lebanese proxies. Iraq and Iran play similar games, while Libya and Saudi Arabia have funded warring Lebanese and Palestinian factions. Among the great powers, France, the United States and the Soviet Union have played a role in different phases of the war.
  • Religion. The civil war is often described as Christians vs. Muslims, but religious labels often signify sectarian or territorial group loyalties rather than religious beliefs. The fiercest battles in recent years have frequently pitted Maronite Christians against other Maronite Christians and Shi‘i Muslims against Shi‘i Muslims in battles for power within their respective communities. And many Christians and Muslims support secular political groups.

The People

Lebanon’s people comprise a variety of religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds -- 17 major sects are officially recognized. The true balance of population between Christians and Muslims is such a delicate issue that no census has been taken since 1932. Muslims are now about 60 percent of the population.

Muslim Communities. The Shi‘a, concentrated in the south, in the Bekaa Valley close to Syria and in Beirut, are the largest Lebanese sect, about one third of the population. Long excluded from economic or political power, the Shi‘a have in the last decade rapidly mobilized as a community. Two rival organizations -- the mainstream Movement of the Deprived (with its militia, Amal) and the militant Islamist group Hizballah -- have emerged to challenge traditional Shi‘i leaders.

Sunni Muslims, the only major sect with no specific geographic “homeland” are most numerous in rural ‘Akkar and Iqlim al-Kharrub, and in the coastal cities of Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon. As part of the majority branch of Islam, they have close ties to the Arab world and strongly support Arab nationalism. Sunni elites traditionally hold a share of power second only to the Maronites, and are threatened by the newly assertive Shi‘a majority. Some 85 percent of the estimated 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are Sunnis; a minority are Christians.

The Druze, about 6 percent of the population, are members of an insular, esoteric sect with roots in Shi‘i Islam. Concentrated in the Shouf mountains overlooking Beirut (and with communities in Israel and Syria), the Druze usually support Arab nationalist politics. The Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), founded by Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt and now led by his son, Walid, once played a leading role in the leftist Lebanese National Movement, but now the PSP primarily protects Druze communal interests.

Christian Communities. The largest Christian sect is the Maronite Catholics, about one fourth of the total population, concentrated in the Mount Lebanon area. The Greek Orthodox are slightly less than half as large a group as Maronites, and Greek Catholics and Armenians make up sizable Christian minorities. Christian upper classes have dominated the economic and political life of the nation, thanks in part to Western “protection” and France’s semi-colonial tutelage. Nonetheless, as a minority within Lebanon and in the Arab world, Lebanese Christians have always felt insecure about their status. Some, especially the Maronite wealthy classes, have resisted attempts to erode their power; others, including many Greek Orthodox militants, have actively supported secular political groups together with Muslims, notably the Lebanese Communist Party and the Parti Populaire Syrien.

The Contenders

Lebanese Army. The army was reorganized and equipped by the US in 1983. The majority of its soldiers are Shi‘i Muslims. Army Gen. Michel Aoun, appointed interim prime minister by then-President Amin Gemayel on September 22, 1988, claims to head the legitimate government of Lebanon, and controls the majority Christian army units -- 15-20,000 troops -- in the Christian sector of Beirut. Aoun gets funds and weapons from Iraq, Syria’s traditional rival, and money from wealthy Lebanese expatriates. About 17,000 mostly Druze, Sunni and Shi‘i Muslim troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Sami Khatib support the government of the newly elected president, Elias Hrawi, and Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss.

Lebanese Forces. A joint command of rightist, Christian militias formed in 1976 to fight the PLO and its leftist allies. Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel soon eliminated or absorbed rival Christian militias, though the forces remained separate from the right-wing Phalange Party. The Lebanese Forces militia, now commanded by Samir Geagea, numbers about 6,000. Israel provided training and equipment from at least 1976 to 1985, but recently Iraq has become a main supplier. Until Gen. Aoun took control of the Christian sector of Beirut in February 1989, the Forces acted as a quasi-government there.

The South Lebanon Army. This mainly Christian force of about 2,500 fighters, created and managed by Israel, controls a large strip of south Lebanon along the Israeli border together with Israeli soldiers.

Amal. Founded in 1975 as the militia of the Shi‘i Movement of the Deprived, now led by Nabih Berri and armed by Syria. Amal was a staunch ally of the PLO in the early years of the civil war, but repeated Israeli attacks against Shi‘i areas and PLO corruption and arrogance eroded this support. Amal has attempted several times to prevent the reestablishment of a PLO military force. Its 6,500 fighters control most of southern Lebanon (except for the Israeli-controlled border area).

Hizballah (Party of God). A 3,500-strong Shi‘i party and militia rival of Amal, based in Baalbek and controlling Beirut’s southern suburbs. It supports the establishment of an Islamic state in Lebanon and is backed by Iran.

Druze. Some 5,000 militia forces of the Progressive Socialist Party defend and control the mainly Druze areas in Shouf and Aley. Allied with Syria.

Palestine Liberation Organization. From 1970 to 1982, Lebanon was the center of the Palestinian resistance movement, and the PLO’s social, educational, economic and military institutions constituted a virtual state within a state. Since Israel’s withdrawal in 1985, the PLO has reestablished a military presence (some 10,000 fighters), especially in and around Sidon, despite active opposition by Amal and Israel.

Syria. Syria has intervened directly and has supported various Lebanese militias over the years to prevent the establishment of a political authority which would impede Syrian hegemony over Lebanon and the PLO. Syria initially backed the PLO and the Lebanese National Movement, but in April 1976, when that coalition threatened to win the first phase of the civil war, Syria sent in troops to support their opponents, the Maronite Christian right. Later, after Christian leaders asked Syria to pull out its troops, Syria switched sides again. After the 1982 Israeli invasion, Syria continued to intervene militarily through its allies, the Amal and Druze militias. Syria presently has some 40,000 troops controlling about 70 percent of Lebanon.

Israel. Like Syria, Israel has used Lebanon as an arena in which to sabotage any Middle East political settlement it finds unacceptable. Israel has repeatedly intervened militarily in Lebanon, most massively in its 1982 invasion. Strong resistance by the Lebanese National Resistance -- a coalition of Lebanese leftist groups plus Amal and Hizballah -- compelled Israel to withdraw most of its troops in 1985, but it left behind a force of soldiers, officials and intelligence agents who use the southern border area as a base for operations in Lebanon.

United States. The US directly intervened militarily in Lebanon in 1958 and again in 1982-1984. Before the US withdrawal in 1984, Beirut had been the headquarters for US intelligence activities in much of the Arab world, as well as regional headquarters for US banks and corporations. The US has supported Israeli military actions against the PLO in Lebanon and endorsed Syrian efforts to control events outside of the south, for example by choosing Lebanese presidential candidates.

Phases of Conflict

Civil War Begins (April 1975-1976) A series of incidents -- government repression of a labor strike in Sidon; rightist attacks on Palestinians in Beirut -- trigger clashes between the leftist Lebanese National Movement and the rightist Lebanese Front.

Syria Intervenes (1976) on behalf of Christian right when victory of leftist forces seems likely.

Syrian-Christian Confrontation (1978, 1980-81) After the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel, Syria switches again to battle against the Christian right, now openly allied with Israel.

Israeli-Palestinian War (1978-81) Israel briefly invades southern Lebanon, and subsequently increases the pace of attacks in southern Lebanon and Beirut, killing many Lebanese and Palestinian civilians as well as PLO fighters. US and Saudi Arabia broker an Israeli-PLO ceasefire in July 1981.

Israeli Invasion, Lebanese Resistance (1982-1985) Israel invades Lebanon to eliminate PLO. US Marines intervene in August 1982; withdraw in early 1984 after Lebanese attacks on US embassy (April 1983) and Marine barracks (October 1983). Lebanese Resistance Front forces Israeli withdrawal from all but border zone by June 1985.

War of the Camps (May 1985-January 1988) Amal, backed by Syria, attacks Palestinian camps to prevent PLO reestablishing military presence. Syria sends troops to West Beirut in April 1987 to end fighting after Amal fails to prevail. Renewed camps war in south likewise ends in Amal-PLO stalemate.

Presidential Crisis (September 1988-present) President Amin Gemayel ends term on September 22 but Parliament does not/cannot meet to elect successor. Gemayel appoints Gen. Aoun interim prime minister; Druze, Shi‘i and Sunni forces, Syrian-backed, oppose Aoun, support acting prime minister Salim al-Hoss. Aoun’s troops initiate “war of liberation” in March 1989, hoping to provoke international intervention against Syria. Maronite Christian Rene Mouwad elected president under Arab League peace plan; assassinated; succeeded by Maronite Christian Elias Hrawi. Aoun refuses to recognize new president’s authority.

Compiled with Julie Denney

Sources: Michael Hudson, “The Precarious Republic Revisited: Reflections on the Collapse of Pluralist Politics in Lebanon,” Contemporary Arab Studies Seminar Paper 2 (Georgetown University, February 1977); Wadi D. Haddad, Lebanon: The Politics of Revolving Doors (New York: Praeger & CSIS, 1985); Augustus Richard Norton, “The Rise and Decline of Lebanon’s Shiites,” The New Leader, February 22, 1988; Edward E. Azar, “Lebanon and Its Political Culture: Conflict and Integration in Lebanon,” in Azar, et al., eds., The Emergence of a New Lebanon: Fantasy or Reality? (New York: Praeger, 1984); Rex Brynen, “PLO Policy in Lebanon: Legacies and Lessons,” Journal of Palestine Studies (Winter 1989); Lewis Snider, “The Lebanese Forces: Their Origins and Role in Lebanon’s Politics,” Middle East Journal (Winter 1984); Marius Deeb, “The External Dimension of the Conflict in Lebanon: The Role of Syria,” Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (Spring 1989); Washington Post, November 26-27, 1989; New York Times, June 13, 1989 and October 25, 1989; Financial Times, June 8, 1989. “Phases of Conflict” based largely on Jim Muir, “Lebanon: Arena of Conflict, Crucible of Peace,” Middle East Journal (Spring 1984).

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