Lessons for Syria, Yemen, and Iraq from Lebanon’s civil war

Lebanon teaches us the impact of identity politics as well as the necessity for diplomatic engagement to end conflict.

"Martyrs' Square Statue Beirut Lebanon" by Vladanr - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Martyrs%27_Square_Statue_Beirut_Lebanon.jpg#/media/File:Martyrs%27_Square_Statue_Beirut_Lebanon.jpg

WASHINGTON, April 20, 2015 — Last week marked the 40th anniversary of Lebanon’s destructive 15-year-long civil war. That war and its aftermath offer several lessons for Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.

Prior to 1975, Lebanon had little regional relevance on a geopolitical level. It was primarily a tourist state that attracted visitors throughout the year with its beautiful beaches, glorious mountains and vibrant city life. April 1975 brought the advent of the Lebanese civil war and changed the dynamic in Lebanon’s routine as a tourist attraction.

The civil war in Lebanon was sparked by the political struggle between regional powers in the Middle East. Lebanon’s civil war was a 15-year power play between the region’s powers, mainly Syria and Israel. It was a show of influence, authority and reach. For the most part, the forces on the ground were the combination of the Kataeb organization, a Christian group, and the Lebanese Forces (not to be mistaken with the Lebanese Armed Forces) against the loose confederation of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization).

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Neither Syria nor Israel dealt with Lebanon as an independent state. For Syria, Lebanon was a de facto extension of the Syrian Republic. For Israel, it was a hostile field that threatened Israel. The Lebanese Forces worked with the Israelis in fighting against the Palestinian presence in Lebanon.

These Lebanese forces welcomed the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon’s south. Israel occupied South Lebanon and managed to suppress the Palestinian threat within Lebanese borders so as not to spill into Israel. The invasion triggered the rise of resistance movements in the south, most of which were Shiite organizations like the Amal Movement and Hezbollah.

Lebanon changed from a vibrant tourist country with little regional geopolitical significance to an occupied battlefield of foreign forces. Some argue that Lebanon’s state of affairs became so poor it could barely represent its country’s needs– it could only concede to the demands of foreign powers. In the 1980s, respect for Lebanon’s sovereignty was barely recognized by its neighbors.

With over 150,000 killed and hundreds of thousands more displaced, the 15-year civil war finally ended in late October of 1990 with the Taif Agreement. The Taif Agreement, or the National Reconciliation Accord, was a settlement negotiated to end the civil war and return Lebanon to a state of political normalcy. Deliberated in Ta’if, Saudi Arabia, the treaty was fathered by Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Hussein El-Husseini. El-Husseini was a co-founder of the Amal Movement and thus was considered one of the founders of Lebanese resistance.

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With the disappearance of Imam Moussa Al-Sadr – a leading Shiite figure iconic for his calls for uniting under national identity rather than sectarianism – in 1978, El-Husseini succeeded him as the Amal Movement’s leader. El-Husseini resigned, however, in 1980, allegedly due to his opposition to the party’s increasing involvement in the Lebanese civil war.

El-Husseini was the speaker of the parliament from 1984 to 1992, succeeded by Nabih Berri, who was backed by Syria to replace El-Husseini. Nevertheless, El-Husseini played a vital role in making the Taif Agreement happen, which effectively established special relations between Lebanon and Syria.

Rafik Hariri, former prime minister of Lebanon who was assassinated in 2005, also played an instrumental role in brokering this agreement in his position as a former Saudi diplomatic representative in Lebanon. He would later be a powerhouse in revitalizing Lebanon and bringing it to the forefront of regional relevance. Moreover, the accord was confirmed with the involvement and agreement of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, France, the United States and Iran. Drafted in favor of Syrian influence in Lebanon, it effectively became an international authorization for Syria’s continued presence and “ghata” or cover of Lebanon.

Even after the Taif Agreement, Lebanon continued to suffer from political instability and sectarian strife, especially in recent years with the rise of extremist groups like ISIS. Nonetheless, the agreement brought a realization to Lebanese society. People identify on a sectarian basis and continue to have loyalties to their sects. Sects can become stronger, but that will not create a stronger Lebanon. Only when all sects, groups, and factions are represented under the banner of national unity will political stability be established.

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When sectarianism becomes a channel for political engagement and a tool for exclusion, it creates detrimental tension in political society. At the core, the solution to sectarian tension in Lebanon and in other parts of the Middle East requires a cultural and social shift. Promoting nationalism and pride in national identity, along with a culture of diplomacy, is a viable vehicle for peace and stability because it shifts the cultural construct away from sectarian strife.

Though there were problems with the Taif Agreement, it did end the civil war. Most sides agree that the solution to the crises in Yemen and Syria is for all parties to the conflict to sit down on the negotiation table and come to a diplomatic settlement of power sharing. Iraq’s situation is different in that it is battling a foreign terrorist organization in an effort to restore its sovereignty.

Nonetheless, the root problem in Iraq involves disenfranchised minorities that are reluctant to back their central government, which in turn creates opportunities for terrorist organizations to take ground in Iraq. The emphasis on power-sharing should not mean that each sect deserves a certain percentage of the pie; rather it should emphasize institutional protection of minority rights while the majority will of the people rules.

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