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Home > History of Lebanon > Civil War

Introduction | Phoenicia | Greek & Roman Periods | Arab Period | Ottoman Rule
French Mendate | Independence | Civil War | Today | Chronology of Key Events

The Beginning of the War

The spark that ignited the war occurred in Beirut on April 13, 1975, when gunmen killed four Phalangists during an attempt on Pierre Jumayyil's life. Perhaps believing the assassins to have been Palestinian, the Phalangists retaliated later that day by attacking a bus carrying Palestinian passengers across a Christian neighborhood, killing about twenty-six of the occupants. The next day fighting erupted in earnest, with Phalangists pitted against Palestinian militiamen (thought by some observers to be from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). The confessional layout of Beirut's various quarters facilitated random killing. Most Beirutis stayed inside their homes during these early days of battle, and few imagined that the street fighting they were witnessing was the beginning of a war that was to devastate their city and divide the country.


Civil War

1. The Beginning of the War
2. Syrian Involvement
3. The Riyadh Conference
4. The Sarkis Administration
5. The 1982 Israeli Invasion
6. The May 17 Accord
7. The Tripartite Accord
8. The Taif Accords
9. The Election 1992

Despite the urgent need to control the fighting, the political machinery of the government became paralyzed over the next few months. The inadequacies of the political system, which the 1943 National Pact had only papered over temporarily, reappeared more clearly than ever. For many observers, at the bottom of the conflict was the issue of confessionalism out of balance-of a minority, specifically the Maronites, refusing to share power and economic opportunity with the Muslim majority.

The government could not act effectively because leaders were unable to agree on whether or not to use the army to stop the bloodletting. When Jumblatt and his leftist supporters tried to isolate the Phalangists politically, other Christian sects rallied to Jumayyil's camp, creating a further rift. Consequently, in May Prime Minister Rashid as Sulh and his cabinet resigned, and a new government was formed under Rashid Karami. Although there were many calls for his resignation, President Franjiyah steadfastly retained his office.

As various other groups took sides, the fighting spread to other areas of the country, forcing residents in towns with mixed sectarian populations to seek safety in regions where their sect was dominant. Even so, the militias became embroiled in a pattern of attack followed by retaliation, including acts against uninvolved civilians.

Although the two warring factions were often characterized as Christian versus Muslim, their individual composition was far more complex. Those in favor of maintaining the status quo came to be known as the Lebanese Front. The groups included primarily the Maronite militias of the Jumayyil, Shamun, and Franjiyah clans, often led by the sons of zuama. Also in this camp were various militias of Maronite religious orders. The side seeking change, usually referred to as the Lebanese National Movement, was far less cohesive and organized. For the most part it was led by Kamal Jumblatt and included a variety of militias from leftist organizations and guerrillas from rejectionist Palestinian (nonmainstream PLO) organizations.

By the end of 1975, no side held a decisive military advantage, but it was generally acknowledged that the Lebanese Front had done less well than expected against the disorganized Lebanese National Movement. The political hierarchy, composed of the old zuama and politicians, still was incapable of maintaining peace, except for occasional, short-lived cease-fires. Reform was discussed, but little headway was made toward any significant improvements. Syria, which was deeply concerned about the flow of events in Lebanon, also proved powerless to enforce calm through diplomatic means. And, most ominous of all, the Lebanese Army, which generally had stayed out of the strife, began to show signs of factionalizing and threatened to bring its heavy weaponry to bear on the conflict.

Syrian Involvement

Syrian diplomatic involvement grew during 1976, but it had little success in restoring order in the first half of the year. In January it organized a cease-fire and set up the High Military Committee, through which it negotiated with all sides. These negotiations, however, were complicated by other events, especially Lebanese Front-Palestinian confrontations. That month the Lebanese Front began a siege of Tall Zatar, a densely populated Palestinian refugee camp in East Beirut; the Lebanese Front also overran and levelled Karantina, a Muslim quarter in East Beirut. These actions finally brought the main forces of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA), into the battle. Together, the PLA and the Lebanese National Movement took the town of Ad Damur, a Shamun stronghold about seventeen kilometers south of Beirut.

In spite of these setbacks, through Syria's good offices, compromises were achieved. On February 14, 1976, in what was considered a political breakthrough, Syria helped negotiate a seventeen-point reform program known as the Constitutional Document. Yet by March this progress was derailed by the disintegration of the Lebanese Army. In that month dissident Muslim troops, led by Lieutenant Ahmad Khatib, mutinied, creating the Lebanese Arab Army. Joining the Lebanese National Movement, they made significant penetrations into Christian-held Beirut and launched an attack on the presidential palace, forcing Franjiyah to flee to Mount Lebanon.

Continuing its search for a domestic political settlement to the war, in May the Chamber of Deputies elected Ilyas Sarkis to take over as president when Franjiyah's term expired in September. But Sarkis had strong backing from Syria and, as a consequence, was unacceptable to Jumblatt, who was known to be antipathetic to Syrian president Hafiz al Assad and who insisted on a "military solution." Accordingly, the Lebanese National Movement successfully pressed assaults on Mount Lebanon and other Christian-controlled areas.

As Lebanese Front fortunes declined, two outcomes seemed likely: the establishment in Mount Lebanon of an independent Christian state, viewed as a "second Israel" by some; or, if the Lebanese National Movement won the war, the creation of a radical, hostile state on Syria's western border. Neither of these possibilities was viewed as acceptable to Assad. To prevent either scenario, at the end of May 1976 Syria intervened militarily against the Lebanese National Movement, hoping to end the fighting swiftly. This decision, however, proved ill conceived, as Syrian forces met heavy resistance and suffered many casualties. Moreover, by entering the conflict on the Christian side Syria provoked outrage from much of the Arab world.

Despite, or perhaps as a result of, these military and diplomatic failures, in late July Syria decided to quell the resistance. A drive was launched against Lebanese National Movement strongholds that was far more successful than earlier battles; within two weeks the opposition was almost subdued. Rather than crush the resistance altogether, at this time Syria chose to participate in an Arab peace conference held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on October 16, 1976.

The Riyadh Conference

The Riyadh Conference, followed by an Arab League meeting in Cairo also in October 1976, formally ended the Lebanese Civil War; although the underlying causes were in no way eliminated, the fullscale warfare stopped. Syria's presence in Lebanon was legitimated by the establishment of the Arab Deterrent Force (ADF) by the Arab League in October 1976. In January 1977 the ADF consisted of 30,000 men, of whom 27,000 were Syrian. The remainder were token contingents from Saudi Arabia, the small Persian Gulf states, and Sudan; Libya had withdrawn its small force in late 1976. Because of his difficulties in reforming the Lebanese Army, President Sarkis, the ADF's nominal commander, requested renewal of the ADF's mandate a number of times.

Thus, after more than one and one-half years of devastation, relative calm returned to Lebanon. Although the exact cost of the war will never be known, deaths may have approached 44,000, with about 180,000 wounded; many thousands of others were displaced or left homeless, or had migrated. Much of the once-magnificent city of Beirut was reduced to rubble and the town divided into Muslim and Christian sectors, separated by the so-called Green Line.

The Sarkis Administration

In December 1976 Sarkis appointed as prime minister Salim al Huss (also spelled Hoss), who chose a cabinet of technocrats that was authorized to rule by decree for six months (later extended). One of the first tasks this government faced was the reorganization of the army, most of whose members had deserted during the Civil War to join one of the various factions. Although the intention of the Cairo Agreement was to station Lebanese military units in southern Lebanon, instead the ADF controlled the area only to the Litani River, leaving the region south of it in the hands of the Palestinians. So strong was their presence that certain areas became known as Fatahland, after the main PLO grouping. Relations with Syria and the problem of the Palestinians in southern Lebanon remained central concerns for Lebanon throughout the period from 1976 to 1982.

The degree of cooperation between the Sarkis administration and Syrian authorities varied, depending on external circumstances in the region. Initially, recognizing its dependence on Syria and Syrian military forces to preserve the peace, the Lebanese government generally cooperated. By late 1977, however, as a result of the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations and Syria's consequent rapprochement with the PLO, Lebanese-Syrian relations cooled. In its own role and in its use of the ADF, Syria found itself in an awkward position because it could not fully exert its authority in Lebanon unless it succeeded in disarming both the Lebanese Christian militias and the PLO. However, it was not prepared to pay the political and military price for doing so and consequently was obliged to maintain a large army in Lebanon, causing a serious drain on Syria's economy.

Relations between Lebanon and Syria deteriorated further when fighting occurred between the ADF and the Lebanese Army in East Beirut in February 1978, followed by a massive ADF bombardment of Christian sectors of Beirut in July. President Sarkis resigned in protest against the latter action but was persuaded to reconsider. Syrian bombardments of East Beirut ended in October 1978 as a result of a UN Security Council cease-fire resolution that indirectly implicated Syria as a party to the Lebanese Civil War. To strengthen its influence over the Sarkis government, Syria threatened several times, in late 1978 and early 1979, to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. But after a relatively cordial meeting between presidents Sarkis and Assad in Damascus in May 1979, Syria stated that the ADF - which by then had become a totally Syrian force - would "remain in Lebanon as long as the Arab interests so require."

From early 1980 onward, Syria became increasingly preoccupied with its domestic difficulties, leaving the Sarkis administration with a freer hand. However, significant ADF action against the Phalange Party militia, headed by Bashir Jumayyil, took place around Zahlah (fifty kilometers east of Beirut) in late 1980 and April 1981. This military threat to its Christian ally caused Israel to intervene, and it shot down two Syrian helicopters over Lebanon. Syria, in turn, introduced SA-2 and SA-6 surface-to-air missiles into Lebanon; the resulting "missile crisis" threatened to cause a regional war, but this possibility was averted through the mediation efforts of other Arab nations and the United States.

Relations with the Palestinians were complex and interrelated with influences in southern Lebanon. In the early days of the Civil War, the relative peace in southern Lebanon had attracted Lebanese refugees from other areas. After the Palestinians left the area to fight elsewhere, Christian militias, led by Lebanese Army officers supported by Israel, took control of a large part of the south. Israel had forged this link in 1977 with Lebanese officers as part of its "Good Fence" policy to prevent a Palestinian presence near Israel's northern border.

However, conflicting interests were at work in southern Lebanon. On the one hand, the Sarkis government saw an opportunity to regain control of the area. On the other hand, the Palestinians, who objected to Syrian efforts to confiscate their heavy weapons and control their activities in the rest of Lebanon, felt they would have greater freedom to operate in the south. For their part, the Syrians wished to eliminate Israeli influence there, while the Israelis wanted direct contact with the population of southern Lebanon and wished to keep both the Syrians and the Palestinians out of the area.

As early as 1977, fighting occurred in the south between the Christian militia under Major Saad Haddad and the Palestinians, who had reinfiltrated the area and were receiving Syrian assistance. The resulting large-scale destruction in the southern area, which Haddad had renamed "Free Lebanon" and which was inhabited mainly by Shia Muslims and Maronite Christians, caused the migration of approximately 200,000 people, or one-third of the population.

To clarify the provisions of the October 1976 Cairo Agreement (preceded by an earlier 1969 agreement) concerning Palestinian activity in southern Lebanon, representatives of Lebanon, Syria (in the guise of the ADF), and the Palestinians held a conference at Shtawrah in July and August 1977. The resulting Shtawrah Accord basically endorsed the Syrian position, which called for the Palestinians to withdraw fifteen kilometers from the Israeli border, with this area to be occupied by the Lebanese Army, and charged the ADF with protecting the southern coastal area. Execution of the agreement, however, was difficult because neither the Palestinians nor the Lebanese Army wished to make the first move, and Israel was apprehensive of increased Syrian influence in the area.

The situation in the south was exacerbated by the entry of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) into southern Lebanon in retaliation for a March 11, 1978, Palestinian guerrilla attack on an Israeli bus near Tel Aviv, in which several people were killed. The IDF staged an all-out attack, and over 25,000 troops occupied positions as far north as the Litani River and remained in Lebanon for three months. The UN called on Israel to withdraw, and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon was sent to replace the Israelis, who withdrew in stages. When Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in June, Haddad's South Lebanon Army (SLA--formerly the Free Lebanon Army) took over most of the areas Israel previously controlled.

Throughout the Sarkis administration, various shifts were also occurring in domestic politics. Prime Minister Huss, a moderate Sunni Muslim, was unable to form a national unity government, as requested by Sarkis in the spring of 1978, but remained in office for two more years. In October 1980, Shafiq al Wazzan, another moderate Sunni and chairman of the Supreme Islamic Council, became prime minister. His government experienced even greater difficulties in holding office, with more than half of the Chamber of Deputies refusing to endorse his cabinet. The inability of the Lebanese Army to maintain any effective control over the country was a major factor contributing to the weakness of these Lebanese governments.

Additional shifts occurred among Lebanese military and political groups. The Shias continued to grow in importance, and in 1980 clashes broke out in the south between Amal, the Shia military arm, which was becoming increasingly a political instrument, and Fatah, a part of the PLO. On the Christian side, the Lebanese Front experienced severe internal disagreements. In July 1980 Bashir Jumayyil and his Phalangist militia scored a resounding triumph over the Tigers, the militia of the National Liberals under Camille Shamun and his son Dani. This victory paved the way for Jumayyil's subsequent prominence. Israeli support of the Lebanese Front was curtailed in 1981, as a condition set by the Lebanese National Movement and by Syria for any attempt at an overall resolution of the Lebanese situation.

Lebanon's security deteriorated significantly in late 1981 and the first half of 1982. There were continuous clashes in West Beirut, Tripoli, and southern Lebanon during this period. In September automobile bombings occurred in West Beirut, Sidon, and Tripoli, along with a campaign of terror against foreign diplomats. These violent incidents were followed by terrorist attacks against Muslim and Christian religious leaders in April 1982. The result of these large-scale breaches of the peace was a growing disillusionment on the part of Lebanese Muslims with the ability of the Lebanese National Movement, the PLO, or Syria (through the ADF) to control matters in areas where they were nominally in charge. As a consequence, more moderate and conservative Sunni and Shia figures gained leadership opportunities; a number of them overtly favored the Lebanese government's re-establishing its authority over the country. Shaykh Muhammad Mahdi Shams ad Din (also seen as Chamseddine), vice chairman of the Higher Shia Islamic Council, for example, requested that the Lebanese Army be sent in to quell fighting between the Shia Amal and the PLO in the south, the Biqa Valley, and parts of West Beirut. Clashes in Tripoli, the largest Sunni city, during this period also resulted in requests that the Lebanese Army enter the area.

The general discontent with the situation on the part of various elements of the population provided a favorable opportunity for the Phalange Party's efforts in the 1982 presidential campaign. Bashir Jumayyil saw himself as a leading candidate because the Phalange Party had established its political power by overwhelming the Shamun militia in 1980 and had the largest Lebanese militia, by that time called the Lebanese Forces.

However, Bashir's close ties to Israel and his proposals for eliminating both the ADF and the PLA from the Lebanese scene understandably met with sharp opposition from Assad and Arafat, both of whom considered Jumayyil's brother Amin more acceptable. This, then, was the situation in Lebanon when Israel invaded on June 6, 1982, in retaliation for the assassination attempt on the Israeli ambassador to London.

The 1982 Israeli Invasion

Israeli-Palestinian fighting in July 1981 was ended by a cease-fire arranged by U.S. President Ronald Reagan's special envoy, Philip C. Habib, and announced on July 24, 1981. The cease-fire was respected during the next 10 months, but a string of incidents, including PLO rocket attacks on northern Israel, led to the June 6, 1982, Israeli ground attack into Lebanon to remove PLO forces. Israeli forces moved quickly through south Lebanon, encircling west Beirut by mid-June and beginning a three-month siege of Palestinian and Syrian forces in the city.

Throughout this period, which saw heavy Israeli air, naval, and artillery bombardments of west Beirut, Ambassador Habib worked to arrange a settlement. In August, he was successful in bringing about an agreement for the evacuation of Syrian troops and PLO fighters from Beirut. The agreement also provided for the deployment of a three-nation Multinational Force (MNF) during the period of the evacuation, and by late August, U.S. Marines, as well as French and Italian units, had arrived in Beirut. When the evacuation ended, these units departed. The U.S. Marines left on September 10.

In spite of the invasion, the Lebanese political process continued to function, and Bashir Gemayel was elected President in August, succeeding Elias Sarkis. On September 14, however, Bashir Gemayel was assassinated. On September 15, Israeli troops entered west Beirut. During the next three days, Lebanese militiamen massacred hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in west Beirut.

Bashir Gemayel's brother, Amine, was elected President by a unanimous vote of the parliament. He took office September 23, 1982. MNF forces returned to Beirut at the end of September as a symbol of support for the government.

In February 1983, a small British contingent joined the U.S., French, and Italian MNF troops in Beirut. President Gemayel and his government placed primary emphasis on the withdrawal of Israeli, Syrian, and Palestinian forces from Lebanon, and in late 1982, Lebanese-Israeli negotiations commenced with U.S. participation.

The May 17 Accord

On May 17, 1983, an agreement was signed by the representatives of Lebanon, Israel, and the United States that provided for Israeli withdrawal. Syria declined to discuss the withdrawal of its troops, effectively stalemating further progress. Opposition to the negotiations and to U.S. support for the Gemayel regime led to a series of terrorist attacks in 1983 and 1984 on U.S. interests, including the bombing on April 18, 1983 of the U.S. embassy in west Beirut (63 dead), of the U.S. and French MNF headquarters in Beirut on October 23, 1983 (298 dead), and of the U.S. embassy annex in east Beirut on September 20, 1984 (8 killed).

Although the general security situation in Beirut remained calm through late 1982 and the first half of 1983, a move by Christian militiamen into the Druze-controlled Shuf area southeast of Beirut following the Israeli invasion led to a series of Druze-Christian clashes of escalating intensity beginning in October 1982. When Israeli forces unilaterally withdrew from the Shuf at the beginning of September 1983, a full-scale battle erupted with the Druze, backed by Syria, pitted against the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) militia as well as the Lebanese army. U.S. and Saudi efforts led to a cease-fire on September 26. This left the Druze in control of most of the Shuf. Casualties were estimated to be in the thousands.

The virtual collapse of the Lebanese army in February 1984, following the defection of many of its Muslim and Druze units to opposition militias, was a major blow to the government. As it became clear that the departure of the U.S. Marines was imminent, the Gemayel Government came under increasing pressure from Syria and its Muslim Lebanese allies to abandon the May 17 accord. The Lebanese Government announced on March 5, 1984, that it was canceling its unimplemented agreement with Israel. The U.S. Marines left the same month.

Further national reconciliation talks at Lausanne under Syrian auspices failed. A new "government of national unity" under Prime Minister Rashid Karami was declared in April 1984 but made no significant progress toward solving Lebanon's internal political crises or its growing economic difficulties.

The Tripartite Accord

The situation was exacerbated by the deterioration of internal security. The opening rounds of the savage "camps war" in May 1985 - a war that flared up twice in 1986 - pitted the Palestinians living in refugee camps in Beirut, Tyre, and Sidon against the Shi'ite Amal militia, which was concerned with resurgent Palestinian military strength in Lebanon. Eager for a solution in late 1985, Syria began to negotiate a "tripartite accord" on political reform among the leaders of various Lebanese factions, including the LF.

However, when the accord was opposed by Gemayel and the leader of the LF was overthrown by his hardline anti-Syrian rival, Samir Jaja, in January 1986, Syria responded by inducing the Muslim government ministers to cease dealing with Gemayel in any capacity, effectively paralyzing the government. In 1987, the Lebanese economy worsened, and the pound began a precipitous slide. On June 1, Prime Minister Karami was assassinated, further compounding the political paralysis. Salim al-Huss was appointed acting prime minister.

As the end of President Gemayel's term of office neared, the different Lebanese factions could not agree on a successor. Consequently, when his term expired on September 23, 1988, he appointed Army Commander General Michel Aoun as interim Prime Minister. Gemayel's acting Prime Minister, Salim al-Huss, also continued to act as de facto Prime Minister. Lebanon was thus divided between an essentially Muslim government in west Beirut and an essentially Christian government in east Beirut. The working levels of many ministries, however, remained intact and were not immediately affected by the split at the ministerial level.

In February 1989, General Aoun attempted to close illegal ports run by the LF. This led to several days of intense fighting in east Beirut and an uneasy truce between Aoun's army units and the LF. In March, an attempt by Aoun to close illegal militia ports in predominantly Muslim parts of the country led to a 6-month period of shelling of east Beirut by Muslim and Syrian forces and shelling of west Beirut and the Shuf by the Christian units of the army and the LF. This shelling caused nearly 1,000 deaths, several thousand injuries, and further destruction to Lebanon's economic infrastructure.

The Taif Accords

In January 1989, the Arab League appointed a six-member committee on Lebanon, led by the Kuwaiti foreign minister. At the Casablanca Arab summit in May, the Arab League empowered a higher committee on Lebanon - composed of Saudi King Fahd, Algerian President Bendjedid, and Moroccan King Hassan - to work toward a solution in Lebanon. The committee issued a report in July 1989, stating that its efforts had reached a "dead end" and blamed Syrian intransigence for the blockage. After further discussions, the committee arranged for a seven-point cease-fire in September, followed by a meeting of Lebanese parliamentarians in Taif, Saudi Arabia.

After a month of intense discussions, the deputies informally agreed on a charter of national reconciliation, also known as the Taif agreement. The deputies returned to Lebanon in November, where they approved the Taif agreement on November 4, and elected Rene Moawad, a Maronite Christian deputy from Zghorta in north Lebanon, President on November 5. General Aoun, claiming powers as interim Prime Minister, issued a decree in early November dissolving the parliament and did not accept the ratification of the Taif agreement or the election of President Moawad.

President Moawad was assassinated on November 22, 1989, by a bomb that exploded as his motorcade was returning from Lebanese independence day ceremonies. The parliament met on November 24 in the Beqaa Valley and elected Elias Hraoui, a Maronite Christian deputy from Zahleh in the Beqaa Valley, to replace him. President Hraoui named a Prime Minister, Salim al-Huss, and a cabinet on November 25. Despite widespread international recognition of Hraoui and his government, General Aoun refused to recognize Hraoui's legitimacy, and Hraoui officially replaced Aoun as army commander in early December.

In late January 1990, General Aoun's forces attacked positions of the LF in east Beirut in an apparent attempt to remove the LF as a political force in the Christian enclave. In the heavy fighting that ensued in east Beirut and its environs, over 900 people died and over 3,000 were wounded.

In August 1990, the National Assembly approved, and President Hraoui signed into law, constitutional amendments embodying the political reform aspects of the Taif agreement. These amendments gave some presidential powers to the council of ministers, expanded the National Assembly from 99 to 108 seats, and divided those seats equally between Christians and Muslims.

In October 1990, a joint Lebanese-Syrian military operation against General Aoun forced him to capitulate and take refuge in the French embassy. On December 24, 1990, Omar Karami was appointed Lebanon's Prime Minister. General Aoun remained in the French embassy until August 27, 1991 when a "special pardon" was issued, allowing him to leave Lebanon safely and take up residence in exile in France. 1991 and 1992 saw considerable advancement in efforts to reassert state control over Lebanese territory. Militias - with the important exception of Hizballah - were dissolved in May 1991, and the armed forces moved against armed Palestinian elements in Sidon in July 1991. In May 1992 the last of the western hostages taken during the mid-1980s by Islamic extremists was released.

In October 1991, under the sponsorship of the United States and the then-Soviet Union, the Middle East peace talks were convened in Madrid, Spain. This was the first time that Israel and its Arab neighbours had direct bilateral negotiations to seek a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace in the Middle East. Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and representatives of the Palestinians concluded round 11 of the negotiations in September 1993.

The Election 1992

Postwar social and political instability, fueled by economic uncertainty and the collapse of the Lebanese currency, led to the resignation of Prime Minister Omar Karami, also in May 1992, after less than 2 years in office. He was replaced by former Prime Minister Rashid al Sulh, who was widely viewed as a caretaker to oversee Lebanon's first parliamentary elections in 20 years.

Source: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress and Wikipedia.

Introduction | Phoenicia | Greek & Roman Periods | Arab Period | Ottoman Rule
French Mendate | Independence | Civil War | Today | Chronology of Key Events

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