What fundamental issues lie at the heart of the Lebanese Civil War?

This is a typical third year undergraduate research paper on the Lebanese Civil War.


What fundamental issues lie at the heart of the Lebanese civil war?
Was civil war in Lebanon inevitable, and if so, why did so few people anticipate it?


By Thomas White

HIS 375:  Conflict in theMiddle East

December 4, 2009

Instructor:  Erik Freas

Word Count 1850

A multitude of economic, political and external factors were responsible for the Lebanese civil war in 1975 and the devastation which followed. The dynamics of these factors which led to Lebanon’s Civil War are not only perplexing, and unending, but the the conflict itself is complex. In order to understand some of the complexities which ultimately led to the Civil war, it is first important to understand the form of democratic government that exists within Lebanon. Established in 1943 under the unwritten “’National Pact’, the government required that the President be a Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the House Speaker, a Shi’ite Muslim”[1], all of which was dictated by the population census established in 1932 and resulted in a fragile balance of power. This fragile power sharing arrangement status quo would become increasingly difficult to maintain, especially as the population shifted. The power sharing agreement which was originally agreed upon arrived at in 1943 was based entirely upon a 1932 census, in which the Christians held a slight majority in terms of population, resulting in the Christians holding most of the power within Lebanon. As the population of Lebanon shifted from one group to another, so too should have the position of power within the government and this is where the trouble began because the Christians tried to cling to power.  

The Christian dominated Lebanon had a long legacy, which was “officially embodied for the first time in 1861 when under European pressure and guarantee, an autonomous province was established in Mount Lebanon”[2]. Then on September 1, 1920 under the mandate system, France created the distinct state of Greater Lebanon which “added parts of Ottoman Syria to the original territory”[3], and it was at this juncture that perhaps the first discord between the Christian and Muslim balance began to first emerge. It was this shift in balance between Muslim and Christian that precipitated the ‘National Pact’, and “not all Muslims and Christians accepted the 1943 compromise, and segments of the major communities continued to harbor dreams either of an Arab union or of a purely Christian Lebanon”[4]. Also with the passage of time, the population of Lebanon began shifting away from a Christian majority, and with this shifting in population began the dynamics which would inevitably lead to civil war as those who were under represented and those who were overrepresented began to clash. As a result of this over/under representation, three areas which were most affected within Lebanon were economics, politics, and pressure from external forces. The individuals most affected by change within these areas were “seeking fundamental change in the society as opposed to those working to maintain the status quo”[5] and it was inevitable that this led to civil war.


Following the defeat of Ottoman troops in World War I, control of Lebanon and Syria was given to France under the newly established League of Nations mandate system and “During French control, which lasted from 1920 to 1943, economic and cultural links were forged between [Christian] Lebanon and Europe that would persist long after French rule ended”[6] Adding to the existing cultural economic disparity between Christian and Muslims was the added economic pressure from immigration. Just as the preceding 120 years saw Maronite immigrants coming from Syria, then Armenians, it was now Palestinians who flocked to Lebanon following the “the creation of Israel (1947-1949) and then again following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War”[7], and this only further amplified existing sectarian strife. What existed within Beirut following the last wave of Palestinian immigration was an economically fragmented society, where “The Christian community largely resided in the more affluent East Beirut. West Beirut, notable for its large zone of squatter settlements, housed hundreds of extremely poor Shi’a families… West Beirut also included enormous Palestinian refugee camps. Some parts of West Beirut remained isolated from the prewar economic progress of central and East Beirut”[8]. As a result of a lack economic opportunity for Palestinian refugees, militant Islamic groups such as Amal and, later, Hezbollah emerged to fill a social services void. As economic disparity became more pronounced, these militant Islamic groups who had provided needed social services were able to reach a greater audience in preaching their reformist doctrine, which further added to sectarian strife and stoked the flames of civil war.


The political landscape of Lebanon, known as the confessional system, was comprised of the unwritten “National Pact” which, as agreed upon by the Christian and Muslim leadership in 1943, provided for a Christian supremacy that established “a ratio of six Christian deputies to every five Muslim deputies in Parliament”[9]. There were many problems with this system, with one such flaw being that the group in power, the Christians, had every reason to try and maintain the status quo. The leadership responsible for creating this confessional arrangement in 1943 operated under an elaborate type of patron and patronage system where ‘party bosses’ or community notables known as Zu’ama made up the focus of power within Lebanon. Under this confessional Zu’ama controlled system, the leaders were able to hand pick those individuals who would run for and get elected to office, and in exchange those individuals then owed their loyalty to the Zu’ama.

Under this political system the “Lebanese parliament thus reflected the web of relationships among traditional foci of power in the country. And moreover it was for a rather long period virtually closed to contenders”[10] Thus those political groups which held power were therefore in the best positions to look out for the self interests of the groups or individuals with whom they held an allegiance. The population of Lebanon at the time was comprised of Christians and Muslims, however each group had its own disparate sects: Christian (Maronite, Greek Catholic, Armenian Christian, and Greek Orthodox), Sunni Muslim (Syrian), Shiite Muslin (Palestinian), and the smallest represented group the Druze (an offshoot of Islam).  Amongst each of these individual sects there existed a still further breakdown, a tribal element “The plain factor remained that the religious communities in Lebanon were essentially tribes, or in any case behaved as tribes, and the game that came to be played between them was a tribal game… , [in which] tribal rivalries and jealousies were mainly involved”[11]. Each tribal element had its own armed militia, whose agenda was for the most part to see to the self interests of the tribal faction that they represented. At the time of the civil war in 1975 there are estimates that the number of armed militia groups was somewhere in the 20s, all of which were tribally affiliated as opposed to religiously affiliated. 

Perhaps though, the main factor which attributed to the beginning of the civil war was the fact that there was a new leadership within Lebanon which came to represent the different factions within Lebanon. The leadership of the old Zu’ama, who made the political system work through compromise and accommodation, were no longer around, “these crafty men among the Maronites, the Sunni’s, and the Shiites were no longer there to make the mechanisms work…of all the lions of prewar politics, only the aged Suleiman Franjieh remained. [in place of the crafty leaders of the past, there were now] young men with guns [who] contested the authority of the old political leaders”[12]. It was this new political power base which emerged that is one of the key reasons that led to civil war, and “vastly broadened the Lebanese political power base, altering forever the power configuration that existed before the war”[13]. These new leaders had an agenda for Lebanon, and rather than deal with political compromise and accommodation as the old Zu’ama had engaged in during the past, these new political leaders sought power by engaging in “the chaotic bloodletting of civil war”[14] 

External Forces

In terms of external involvement in the Lebanese Civil War, Syriaplayed the largest and most influential role. During the initial stages of the tensions mounting within Lebanon, Syria quietly agitated the situation, through a combination of indirect covert and direct intervention. In the midst of the conflict, Syria intervened directly which “contributed to the collapse of the traditional order in Lebanon, and thereafter it [Syria] pursued a policy of extending support to the revisionist elements while occasionally mediating between the warring parties in an effort to prevent a total collapse of the Lebanese political system”[15]. Syria’s rationale for creating such destabilization was to prevent the partition of Lebanon along Christian and radically supported Palestinian lines. Had such a partition occurred, then Syria would have been “sandwiched between two radical neighbors, one of whom, Iraq, was a bitter enemy and would, moreover, probably provoke Israeli intervention on the side of the beleaguered Christians”[16], forcing Syria to choose sides with one of the belligerents, something that Syria did not want to do.

The next external force which had the greatest influence on the civil war in Lebanonwas Israel. Israel has long had a vested interest in Southern Lebanon, with  Israeli policy toward Lebanon lying “somewhere between the pursuit of ‘possession’ and ‘milieu’ goals, and has sought to dominate the south due to compelling security, trading, and water interests”[17].Israel’s greatest concern regardingLebanon was the fact that the PLO had been able to plan and carry out military attacks againstIsrael from withinLebanon’s borders. As an external forceIsrael saw it within her own interests to provide material support to the Christian government forces inLebanon with a goal of seeing the culmination of a Christian state inLebanon in much the same way thatSyria feared the partition of a Christian state. Israel as an external force abetted the civil war scenario within Lebanon by providing material support to the Christian forces within Lebanon, and this in turn escalated support for forces opposing the Christian government.

In much the same manner that Syria and Israel provided support to Lebanese proxies so too did Iraq and Iran, while Libya and Saudi Arabia also funded warring Lebanese and Palestinian factions. The significance of the external forces which escalated the civil war within Lebanon is that without the support from these external forces, the ability for competing factions in Lebanon to engage in armed conflict would have been almost impossible.


It is difficult to identify one single aspect as being the single most defining factor which led to civil war in Lebanon because the situation leading up to civil war in Lebanon was incredibly complex, involving not only multiple political players, but also a multiplicity of political agendas. However the one essential that all the political players who had a vested interest in the Lebanese Civil War all shared, whether that involved seeing the status quo remain the same or had an interest in seeking fundamental change was the element of power. A power rooted in self-interest. Yet despite the battle for control between the various factions within Lebanon, the overall mood of the Lebanese people leading up to civil war still remained optimistic, and there was still hope that widespread war would be avoided. However as the political conflict played out in Lebanon the greater populace was finally forced to choose sides and it was then that “the Lebanese majority was dragged into the war”[18]. Finally in the case of the Lebanese Civil War while the various political players inside and out of Lebanon come to grips with their struggle for power, it is the people themselves who will suffer the most, and in the end it will be the people who will have to deal with the aftermath.


Entelis, John P. 1981. The Lebanese Civil War by Marius Deeb Lebanonin Crisis: Participants and Issues by P. Edward Haley; Lewis W. Snider Source. International Journal of Middle East Studies. 13 (May): 245-247.

Freas, Lecture Topics in World History: Conflict in theMiddle East, Lecture for the Lebanese Civil War

Gilmour, David, Lebanon: The Fractured Country,Oxford: Martin Robertson, 1983.

Mackey, Sandra, Lebanon, A House Divided,New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989.

Murden, Simon. 2000. Understanding Israel’s Long Conflict in Lebanon: The Search for an Alternative Approach to. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. 27 (May): 25-47.

Rabinovich, Itamar, The War for Lebanon, 1970-1983,Ithaca,New York:CornellUniversity Press, 1984.

Salibi, K. 1988. A House of Many Mansions: The History of LebanonReconsidered. Berkeleyand Los Angeles: Universityof California Press., p. 55 quoted in Stewart, Dona J. 1996. Economic Recovery and Reconstruction in Postwar Beirut. Geographical Review. 86 (October): 487-504., p. 489

Stewart, Dona J. 1996. Economic Recovery and Reconstruction in Postwar Beirut. Geographical Review. 86 (October): 487-504.

[1] Eric Freas, Lecture Topics in World History: Conflict in the Middle East, Lecture for the Lebanese Civil War,  4

[2] Itamar Rabinovich, The War for Lebanon, 1970-1983, (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1984), 18

[3] Rabinovich, The War for Lebanon,  21

[4] Rabinovich, The War for Lebanon,  25

[5] John P. Entelis, 1981.The Lebanese Civil War by Marius Deeb Lebanon in Crisis: Participants and Issues by P. Edward Haley; Lewis W. Snider Source. International Journal of Middle East Studies. 13 (May): pp.245-247., 246

[6] Dona J. Stewart, 1996. Economic Recovery and Reconstruction in Postwar Beirut. Geographical Review. 86 (October): pp. 487-504., 488

[7] Stewart,  Economic Recovery and Reconstruction in Postwar Beirut, 491

[8] Stewart,  Economic Recovery and Reconstruction in Postwar Beirut , 491

[9] Rabinovich, The War for Lebanon, 24

[10] Rabinovich, The War for Lebanon, 28

[11] K.Salibi, 1988. A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press., p. 55 quoted in Stewart, Dona J. 1996. Economic Recovery and Reconstruction in Postwar Beirut. Geographical Review. 86 (October): pp.487-504., 489

[12] Sandra Mackey., Lebanon, A House Divided  (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989), 234

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Rabinovich, The War for Lebanon,  47-48

[16] Rabinovich, The War for Lebanon, 48

[17] Simon Murden, 2000. Understanding Israel’s Long Conflict in Lebanon: The Search for an Alternative Approach to. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. 27 (May): pp.25-47, 33

[18] David, Gilmour, Lebanon: The Fractured Country, (Oxford: Martin Robertson, 1983), 119

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