Causes of the Lebanese Civil War

The Middle Eastern region has always been a symbol of regional instability; much like a leaky propane tank in an area prone to wild fires, just one spark in the wrong place can create an inferno. The subject of this investigation is to determine the primary causes for the Lebanese Civil War, why the fighting persisted for the better part of two decades, and how it finally ended. Using books written at the time of the war from scholarly sources and examining the firsthand accounts of individuals affected by the war, we will be able to at least draw some conclusions of how and why history unfolded the way it has.

For fifteen years (1975-1990), Lebanon was embroiled in a vicious civil war that ultimately resulted in de facto Syrian military control over the small Middle Eastern state and left thousands of people dead—many non-combatant civilians. Most civil wars are fought between two religious or political factions, but the belligerents included the Lebanese Front, Syria, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), Israel, and the Lebanese National Movement (LNM), though it can be argued that this was a battle of control between the region’s Muslim and Christian populations though the scope of interests involved would make it far more significant. Thus, it would not be entirely accurate to refer to this conflict as a ‘civil war’, but an ideological struggle of an entire region fought on a very small piece of land. According to David C. Gordon in his book Lebanon, the Fragmented Nation, ‘It has been a war between haves and have-nots, Christians and Muslims, Lebanese nationalists and non-Lebanese Palestinians, as well as a war between rival Arab states and ideologies on Lebanese soil, and part of the confrontation between Israel, the Arabs, and more.’[1]

Summary of Evidence: A Timeline

  1. Lebanon obtains her independence in 1946.[2]
  1. The state of Israel is formed in 1948.
  1. Palestinian refugees are driven from Israeli territory to neighbouring countries.
  1. Lebanon attempts to absorb more than half a million Palestinian refugees, not really welcoming them into the society.
  1. Stability is compromised during the 1960s and power shifts several times ultimately leading to civil war in 1958.[3]
  1. During the 1960s and 1970s, the PLO violates Lebanese sovereignty to attack Israel.
  1. Lebanese society is polarized as the Muslim minority feels powerless and allies itself with more powerful Muslim forces such as the PLO and the Syrians.[4]
  1. Christian majority allies themselves with the nationalist forces. Open warfare breaks out in 1975 and becomes a microcosm for the rest of the conflict in the Middle East.[5]

An Evaluation of Sources

Itamar Rabinovich’s The War for Lebanon 1970-1985 was a source of basic information. It identified the various factions and their objectives and provided a summary of the major events in the war and the tensions leading up to it. A valuable source for someone that needs to familiarise themselves with the general situation, though it does not adopt a particular perspective. This would be a good place to start when beginning research.

In Syria and Iran by Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Raymond A. Hinnebusch, the subject of discussion focused on the growing hegemony of Syria and Iran as an opposition to Israel’s growth in the Middle East. At first glance, the subject matter had very little to do with the Lebanese Civil War, however, the books sixth chapter introduces the theory that the war in Lebanon was critical to the interests of many factions in the region rather than being a simple resolution of sovereignty and government representation. ‘The struggle for Lebanon is most usefully understood, not as part of a civilizational conflict between Islam and the West, but as a conflict of national interests: if Israel could control Lebanon, it could smash Syrian and Palestinian resistance to its hegemony. Syria and Iran sought to make Lebanon, respectively, a buffer and a front in the struggle with Israel.’[6] This book was critical to understanding how a delicate situation was pushed into civil unrest by external forces. In this case, Iran and Syria were threatened by an Israel backed by the superpower that was the United States of America and much of the Shi’a Muslims in the region became more energized to resist that influence. Of special interest was the alliance of the Lebanese Shi’a Muslims with Syria and Iran, and their ultimate success. ‘The USA and Israel withdrew from Lebanon. Syria and Amal had forged an alliance in opposition to the USA, the Phalanges and Israel which would prove remarkably enduring.’[7]

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