Civil War: Lebanon (1975-1978)

Mehmet Gurses. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


Although Lebanon gained its independence in 1941 (Rabinovich 1985), “the people of Lebanon have a long and distinctive history” (Bannerman 2002, 197). The Islamic empires of the Umayyad (660-750), the Abbasid (750-1258), and later on the Fatimids, Ayubids, and Memluks of Egypt dominated the area for centuries. From the early sixteenth century, the Sunni Ottoman Turks controlled the whole area, until the dissolution of the empire at the end of World War I (Bannerman 2002).

Through a wartime agreement between Britain and France, Lebanon became a French mandate. France created modern Lebanon on August 31, 1920, by expanding its boundaries to establish a more viable state (Rabinovich 1985). As a result, the northern city of Tripoli, which is a Sunni Muslim center, the southern Shi’ite Muslim centers of Sidon and Tyre, and the Bekaa Valley in the east were added to the Lebanese state. Beirut, the home of all different sects—Maronites and Greek Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Druze—became the capital city of modern Lebanon. The French mandate came to an end in 1943 as a result of the French political and military decline during World War II and the rise of Syrian and Arab nationalism in the Middle East (Bannerman 2002).

The oral agreement between Christians and Muslims that was reached in 1943 marked the foundations of modern Lebanon. The distribution of power was based upon each community’s numerical strength (Rabinovich 1985). As a result, “Christian supremacy” (Rabinovich 1985, 24) in the modern Lebanon was established in the decision that the “president of the republic was to be a Maronite Christian; the president of the Chamber of deputies, a Shi’ite Muslim; the prime minister a Sunni Muslim. The Greek orthodox were to have the vice-prime minister and the vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies” (Deeb 1980, 5). Moreover, “a ratio of six Christian deputies to every five Muslim deputies in parliament” was agreed upon (Rabinovich 1985, 24).

Country Background

Lebanon became one of the most democratic and most stable states in the Middle East after it gained independence. The Lebanese political and economic system attracted deposits and trusts from the oil-rich Arab countries, and “this capital helped fuel the remarkable development during the period of 1955-1975” (Held 2000, 266). The Lebanese economy diversified after independence, and the “manufacturing sector surpassed agriculture in the economic hierarchy” (Held 2000, 267). The share of industry in the gross domestic product (GDP) reached 20 percent in 1974 (Nasr 1990). Lebanon attracted more than 1.5 million tourists before 1975 (Held 2000). Lebanon, with a democratic and highly urban and educated society, was labeled the “Switzerland of the Middle East” before the outbreak of the 1975 civil war (Goldschmidt 2000). Besides the domestic improvements in the economy, the Lebanese economy took advantage of the regional economic boom, “especially of the growing wealth of the Arab oil states. Beirut supplied a source of entertainment and investment as well as transit points for goods and services” (Bannerman 2002, 206). Nasr (1990, 5) reports that “the average yearly rate of growth was around six percent; the national income per capita increased from $400 in 1965 and $647 in 1970 to $1415 in 1974.” The GDP per capita did not decline during the 1975-1978 war. GDP per capita was $3,429 (constant 1985 US dollars) in 1975 (Fearon and Laitin 2003). Parliamentary elections were held with no serious restrictions until the outbreak of the war in 1975. Lebanon received a 5 on the Polity IV scale, which ranges from-10 (least democratic) to +10 (most democratic) in 1975 (Fearon and Laitin 2003).

Conflict Background

The Lebanese 1975-1978 civil war was a resumption of the conflict that took place between the same parties in 1958. The political turmoil in Lebanon during these years was closely related to regional developments. The primary factor that led to the outbreak of conflict between the two major groups, the Christians and the Muslims, was systemic. The Arab-Israeli conflict and Egyptian leader Nasser’s nationalistic policies fueled the Muslims’ resentment in Lebanon (Rabinovich 1985). The Muslims believed that the political system needed to be altered in such a way that Christians were no longer the dominant element of the system. The conflict broke out between President Chamoun’s supporters, Maronite Christians, and the Muslims in February 1958. The Lebanese army remained neutral, and the conflict subsided with U.S. military intervention. The status quo was preserved, yet the 1958 war revealed the shortcomings inherent in the Lebanese political system, on the one hand, and how Lebanese politics is closely related to and affected by regional developments, on the other.

The primary factor underlying the onset of the 1958 and 1975-1978 civil wars should not be characterized as the Christians against the Muslims (Rabinovich 1985). Lebanese society is too complex to be divided into such a binomial dichotomy. Although the sectarian divisions among the groups were the most crucial factor leading to the outbreak of the conflict, “political leaders were the secular heads of prominent families, rather than clerics” (Abu-Hamad 1995, 237). Religious cleavages were used by the leaders to mobilize their communities and differentiate themselves from other groups. Thus, the traditional classification of civil wars as ethnic or religious may not capture the complexity of the Lebanese civil wars.

The first serious indications of impending civil war were the clashes between Palestinians and the Lebanese army in 1969. The conflict over the Palestinian issue served as a catalyst in the 1975 Lebanese civil war. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Lebanese government signed the Cairo agreement in November 1969 (Rabinovich 1985; O’Ballance 1998). This agreement involved ambiguous terms and indeed showed the weakness of the Lebanese government in controlling its own territory.

Events in the late 1960s and early 1970s precipitated the outbreak of the second civil war in modern Lebanon. The war started in April 1975 under the pressure from internal and external forces (Rabinovich 1985). It is common to divide the Lebanese civil war into several phases. For instance, Rabinovich (1985) divides the second civil war into four phases. Similarly, Rasler (1983), based on Hudson (1978), argues that the second Lebanese civil war experienced four distinct phases. Deeb (1980), on the other hand, divides the war into seven phases. These studies conclude that the war started in April 1975 and ended in October 1976 with the Riyadh Conference. Nevertheless, as O’Ballance (1998) argues, the war continued, with severe complications. Although there is no consensus among scholars as to the end date of the second war, this article considers the war to have ended in 1978, when the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) arrived in March 1978, and a six-point national accord was endorsed by the Lebanese parliament and agreed upon by the communities’ leaders in April 1978 (O’Ballance 1998; Deeb 1980). Doyle and Sambanis (2000) report that the second civil war in Lebanon lasted thirty-six months, which indicates that the war ended in April 1978.

Therefore, the second Lebanese civil war is divided into five phases. The first four phases are in accordance with Rabinovich’s (1985) and Rasler’s (1983) classification and analyze the period between the outbreak of the war in April 1975 and the Riyadh Conference in October 1976, at which the fighting parties negotiated a peace settlement. The fifth phase analyzes the post-Riyadh Conference period until the deployment of the UNIFIL and the endorsement of a six-point national accord by the parliament (April 1978). This phase is heavily based on O’Ballance (1998).

The first phase of the war (April-June 1975) was dominated by the clashes between radical Palestinians and the Phalangist militias in Beirut. O’Ballance (1998, 1) reports the incident that marked the outbreak of the civil war in Lebanon:

…on April 13 1975 in the mainly Christian district of Rumaniyeh, outside the Church of St Maron. Pierre Gamayel, leader of Falange (Phalange) Party, sometimes referred to as Kataib, was attending a consecration service. Outside, members of his armed and uniformed militia were diverting traffic away from the front of the church when a vehicle carrying half a dozen Palestinian militiamen—firing their rifles into the air in the customary “baroud”—came on to the scene. The Palestinians refused to be diverted from their route, so the Falangists halted their progress and attacked them. In the scuffle the Palestinian driver was killed, as were three Falangists.

The underlying factor, however, was the tension that had been growing within Lebanon. By that time, the Lebanese government had become so weak that each group, both Muslims and Christians, established their own militias to protect their members and to enhance their power. Following the incidents in Beirut, clashes occurred in Tripoli, a Sunni Muslim center, between the supporters of President Franjiyya and ex-prime minister Karami, a Sunni political leader. These incidents resulted in a cabinet crisis. The Muslim members of the Sulh’s cabinet, including the prominent Druze leader Junblat, blamed the Phalangists for the clashes and resigned from their posts (O’Ballance 1998; Rabinovich 1985). As Deeb (1980, 1-2) argues, prime minister Sulh’s resignation “demonstrated the precariousness and weakness of the prime minister as compared with the president of the republic. Rashid Karami, an ex-prime minister and prominent Sunni leader, reiterated his intention of running in the next presidential elections and maintained that the position of the prime minister in Lebanon had become ineffective and devoid of any real power in decision making.”

The second phase (June 1975-January 1976) was characterized by the spread of the war and coalition building among the politically powerful groups. Clashes between mainly Christian and Muslim groups occurred in several large cities, including Beirut, Zahle, Tripoli, and Akkar (Rabinovich 1985). This phase also witnessed the formation of a Shi’ite armed militia— Amal—by the Shi’a leader al-Sadr. Moreover, the Muslims made it clear that they want a revision of the political system. During this period, the Lebanese army disintegrated, and Christian leaders started to discuss the partition of the Christian community.

The third phase (January-May 1976) was marked by Syrian military intervention in the Lebanese conflict. A partition of Lebanon would be consequential for the Syrian regime because it would result in a small Christian state that would make an alliance with Israel and a radical Arab state that would be supported by Iraq, a bitter rival of Syria. With the consent of the United States and the tacit agreement of Israel, Syria intervened to obstruct a possible partition (Rabinovich 1985). The Syrian direct intervention was expected to stop the violence between the groups. However, the attempts by the Syrian regime to bring about peace and control the fighting groups did not go as planned. The Palestinians, on the one hand, were weary of the Syrian intentions, for Syria was seeking a Greater Syria that would include Palestine land (Rabinovich 1985). On the other hand, Kamal Junblat, a charismatic Druze leader who founded the Progressive Socialist Party, accused the Syrian regime of being corrupt and not genuine in the establishment of “democracy and socialism” (Rabinovich 1985, 52). This resulted in a conflict between the Syrian troops and Muslim groups, primarily the Palestinians and the Lebanese left.

The fourth phase (May-October 1976) was marked by the Riyadh Conference and its consequences. The six parties—Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, the PLO, and Kuwait—convened in Riyadh on October 16, 1976 (Rabinovich 1985). The most important decision made during the conference was to stop the fighting and send an Arab Deterrent Force (ADF) to supervise the normalization process. The ADF, mainly composed of Syrian troops, would be assisted financially by the oil-producing Arab states, primarily Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Palestinians agreed to retain their pre-1975 positions and restrict their activities in the south. Thus, the Riyadh Conference not only endorsed the right of the PLO to operate in Lebanon, albeit limited to south Lebanon, but also gave Syria the opportunity to establish a political and military hegemony over Lebanese politics (O’Ballance 1998). The fundamental issues between the Muslims and the Christians over the power sharing remained unsolved, however.

The fifth phase of the war was characterized by a decline in violence in Beirut between Muslims and Christians and an increasingly important Syrian direct role (O’Ballance 1998). The ADF failed to disarm the Christian and Muslim militias. The PLO moved back to south Lebanon. However, this caused confrontations with the South Lebanon Army (SLA), Haddad’s Christian militia, which was supported by Israel. The relative stability and reduced violence in Beirut, however, were seriously undermined by the assassination of Druze leader Kamal Junblat on March 16, 1977. Junblat was not in favor of the Syrian presence and influence in Lebanon (O’Ballance 1998). In early 1978, Syrian ADF troops clashed with the Christian National Liberal Party (NLP), led by Chamoun. The PLO raids into Israel from south Lebanon finally led to an Israeli invasion of south Lebanon in March 1978. Israel announced that the goal of the operation was to destroy the PLO bases and establish a security zone. Israeli forces, aided by the SLA, did not confront the ADF and did not advance north of the red line, which lay slightly north of the Litani River (O’Ballance 1998). In the same month, the UN authorized the establishment of a UN peacekeeping force to be deployed in south Lebanon. The first UNIFIL troops arrived on March 22, 1978 (O’Ballance 1998). The fifth phase and the civil war ended in April 1978 with a national accord by the groups’ leaders that aimed at banning all private militias and reestablishing the Lebanese army.

The 1975-1978 civil war severely impacted the sociopolitical and economic life of the Lebanese. As a result of the war, Lebanon lost its functions “as a financial, cultural, and communication center” in the Middle East (Rabinovich 1985, 57). Thousands of people, mostly Christians, had to emigrate. Sambanis (2004) reports that 285,000 people were displaced during the war period (1975-1990). The war also led to a high number of casualties, 125,892 (Doyle and Sambanis 2000). The war ended in a negotiated settlement (Doyle and Sambanis 2000), yet the country became “divided among external forces and local baronies” (Rabinovich 1985, 57). Some features of the war are summarized in Table 1.

Sources: Doyle and Sambanis 2000, Fearon and Laitin 2003, Nasr 1990, O’Ballance 1998, Rabinovich (1985), Sambanis 2004.
Notes: *Doyle and Sambanis (2000) do not report any UN role in this war. The UNIFIL was primarily deployed in south Lebanon to prevent clashes between the Palestinian groups and Israel.
**These data are for the 1975-1990 period. Abu-Hamad (1995, 241) reports that “750,000 [people] were internally displaced and 930,000 were forced to emigrate.” The huge gap between the numbers may be a result of sources they used. Sambanis (2004) data are based on Maksidi and Sadaka (2002), “The Issue of Displaced in Lebanon, 1975-1990: The Movements and Regions of the Displaced.” Abu-Hamad’s figures are from a 1992 unpublished UN study.
War: Sectarian conflict among Christian and Muslim groups
Dates: April 1975-April 1978
Casualties: 125,892
Regime type prior to war: 5 (Polity 2 variable in Polity IV data— ranging from -10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: Not available
GDP per capita year war began: $3,429 (constant 1985 US dollars)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: $3,299 (constant 1985 US dollars)
Insurgents: Christian and Muslim militias
Issue: Identity and control of the central government
Rebel funding: Domestic and external sources
Role of geography: High levels of ethnic and religious concentration in different parts of the country
Role of resources: None
Immediate outcome: Negotiated settlement with treaty facilitated by Saudi Arabia
Outcome after 5 years: War recurred in 1982.
Role of UN:* Sent peacekeepers into southern Lebanon.
Role of regional organization: Arab Deterrence Force was active.
Refugees:** 285,000
Prospects: Contingent on regional political stability
Table 1: Civil War in Lebanon

The Insurgents

There is no easy way to classify the rebels in the Lebanese civil war. The primary reason for this is that the governmental structure and state apparatus became useless, as it was principally controlled by one group, the Christian Maronites. Although in general the conflict occurred between Muslims and Christians, the temptation to classify the rebels or the fighting parties as Muslims versus Christians should be resisted (Rabinovich 1985). Several clashes occurred among Christians as well as among Muslims during the course of the war; for instance, Syrian troops cooperated with the Christian groups against the Palestinians and the leftists groups in the early years of the war (O’Ballance 1998). Thus, the question of who fought whom is quite complicated in the Lebanese context (O’Ballance 1998).

Despite the fact that the central government almost collapsed, and no central authority was accepted as legitimate by most of the fighting groups, the warring factions could be classified as status quo and revisionist. Generally speaking, Muslim groups sought a fundamental change in the political system, whereas the Christian groups fought to preserve the status quo, in which they were the dominant power (Deeb 1980; Rabinovich 1985).

In the status quo coalition, two groups were most effective. The Phalangist Party was the single most important group in this coalition. The party was founded in the 1930s and became quite influential in Lebanese politics in later decades. In the 1958 civil war, the Phalangists supported President Chamoun (Deeb 1980). The second influential group was the NLP, led by Camille Chamoun. It lacked a coherent doctrine and was primarily based on Chamoun’s pragmatic and charismatic personality (Deeb 1980). In the south, the SLA, led by Major Haddad and supported by Israel, was the only effective non-Muslim organization. Despite differences among the Christian groups, they managed to form alliances against the Muslim militias during the 1975-1978 period (Deeb 1980).

Although the government army was composed of both Muslims and Christians, the latter group was in the majority. According to the Doyle and Sambanis (2000) data set, the army size was 55,000. O’Ballance (1998, 14), on the other hand, reports that the government army consisted of somewhere between 15,000 and 18,000 troops. Nevertheless, the Lebanese national army disintegrated in 1976 after the clashes started between Muslim and Christian militias. Hence, the primary combatant force was not the Lebanese national army but rather the militias. The Phalangist Maronites had the largest Christian militia, which was estimated to exceed 10,000 members by the end of 1975. Chamoun’s NLP had 2,000 armed militiamen when the war started. In the south, the SLA, led by Major Haddad, had about 2,000 armed militiamen (O’Ballance 1998).

The revisionist coalition was larger and more heterogeneous than the status quo coalition (Rabinovich 1985). The most influential actors were the Palestinian organizations and the leftist militias. Of the leftist organizations and parties, the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), led by the Druze Kamal Junblat, was the most influential (Deeb 1980; Rabinovich 1985). Fath, led by Yassir Arafat, was the most powerful group among the Palestinian organizations. Syrian intervention produced several pro-Syrian groups during the civil war. The most influential was a Shi’ite organization, Amal, led by al-Sadr. Amal had close ties with Syria and was actively fighting against Israeli forces and their local allies. Of the Muslim groups, Kamal Junblat’s Progressive Socialist Party and the PLO were the most effective. According to O’Ballance (1998), the former group had about 3,000 whereas the latter had about 8,000 well-armed and well-trained men in the late 1970s.

Several scholars (e.g., Collier and Hoeffler 1998; Fearon 2004; Ross 2004) have argued that natural resource wealth has substantial impact on the onset and duration of civil war. However, the debate over the relationship between natural resource wealth and civil wars is not applicable to Lebanese case, for Lebanon has no mineral resources. Nasr (1990) provides a good discussion of the fighting groups’ revenue sources in the Lebanese civil war. The Lebanese warring factions benefited from a domestic and regional economic boom in the early and mid-1970s. Consequently, Lebanese expatriates contributed to the Lebanese economy and the continuation of the war. Nasr (1990, 5) reports that “transfers and remittances (wages, savings, benefits) rose … from $250 million in 1970 to $910 million in 1975 and 2,254 in 1980. This means that the weight of these remittances in the Lebanese national income rose from 18 percent in 1970 to 35.4 percent in 1980.” The external monies received by the PLO contributed to the Lebanese national economy as well. The “Palestine economy” in the late 1970s, as Nasr puts it, “was probably larger than that of the Lebanese state itself” (Nasr 1990, 5). Finally, the Lebanese economy was redistributed among the warring factions. Most of the fighting groups established a de facto rule over some parts of the country and, accordingly, those areas’ economic activities. The percent of custom revenues collected by the central government, for instance, declined from 97.4 percent in 1980 to 10 percent in 1986 (Nasr 1990). This gap indicates the increasing power of the locally dominant armed groups and how they were funded throughout the war.


Geography is a determining factor in the onset and duration of a civil war. Fearon and Laitin (2003) find that rough terrain increases the probability of a civil war onset. A rugged landscape can provide incentives to the rebel leaders to initiate a conflict with their governments, for mountainous geography makes it harder for the government forces to locate the rebels. Lebanon, unlike other Middle Eastern countries, is mountainous. According to the Doyle and Sambanis’s (2000) measure of mountainousness, which ranges from 0 (least mountainous) to 81 (most mountainous), Lebanon receives a score of 57.1. Nevertheless, the effect of such ragged geography is complicated in the Lebanese case. Geography did not serve to hide rebels or warring parties, but it did enable them to carve out small pockets of land in which they became the dominant power. The Christians, for instance, were able to isolate themselves from the rest of the population owing to their geographic location in Mount Lebanon. However, the level of violence was much higher in parts where no sect was dominant. The conflict started in Beirut, a city in which almost all ethnic and religious groups lived and in which the highest number of casualties occurred during the war.


The violence between warring factions during the 1975-1978 period took several forms. Because each faction was dominant in some specific areas of the country, most of the violence and killing occurred in areas where members of those sects and groups lived together. Beirut was the most violent place, for almost all sects and groups lived there. Communal violence was the most common form during the first years of the war. The Palestinian refugee camps were among the most common targets of the Christian militias (O’Ballance 1998).

In the following years, car bombs, assassinations, and abductions became widely used by the fighting groups. Abu-Hamad (1995, 241 fn) reports that “17,415 were reported missing and ‘presumed dead,’ including 13,968 abducted by various factions. During the same period [1975-1990] 3,461 car bombs exploded resulting in 4,386 deaths and 6,784 injuries.” The terrorist acts were not confined to the Lebanese borders. The PLO, for instance, was held responsible for several terrorist acts against Israelis during these years in various countries. The Israeli response, however, was mainly to attack the PLO bases in Lebanon, which severely damaged the political and economic infrastructure of the country.

Causes of the War

The causes of the Lebanese civil war are quite complex and numerous. However, the factors that led to the onset of the war can be divided into two broad groups: domestic and external. The domestic factors are closely related to the ethnic and religious composition of Lebanese society. Abu-Hamad (1995) makes a strong argument for the role of local leaders in the onset of the conflict. The ethnic and religious cleavages within Lebanese society were manipulated and exploited by the community leaders. A sectarian political system helped not only to isolate each sect from the others but also provided the community leaders with a pool of resources that could be manipulated to advance their personal interests. The shift in the numerical strength of the sects, primarily “due to the higher rates of Christian emigration and Muslim birth rates” (Abu-Hamad 1995, 239) over time raised demands for revision of the decision-making process. By 1968, for instance, it was widely acknowledged that Muslims outnumbered the Christians (Abu-Hamad 1995). For political reasons, no official census had been conducted since 1932. However, Gilmour (1983) reports that official estimates of the population divided the sects as follows in 1956: Maronite Catholics, 423,000; Greek Orthodox, 149,000; Greek Catholics, 91,000; Sunni Muslims, 286,000; Shi’a Muslims, 250,000; and Druze, 88,000. Gilmour (1983) also concludes that by 1975 it was widely acknowledged that the Christians were not in the majority and the Shi’a and possibly the Sunni Muslims were more numerous than the Maronite Christians.

The struggle over the Lebanese polity was, however, hastened and worsened by regional developments. The Arab-Israeli conflict was probably the most crucial development that fueled the conflict among the various groups, primarily revisionist Muslims and pro-status quo Christians. The 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars forced thousands of Palestinians to seek refuge in neighboring countries. A substantial portion of the Palestinians moved to southern Lebanon, Beirut, Baalbak in the Bekaa Valley, and Jordan (Held 2000). After the fighting between Palestinians and Jordan in 1970, the PLO moved its base from Jordan to Beirut, accompanied by another wave of Palestinian refugees.

The rise of Arab nationalism and of Nasserism in particular gave momentum to the conflict between revisionists and status quo groups. The rise of Arabism and Islam as a political alternative, accompanied by the shifting power balances in the Lebanese political system, contributed to the onset of the war. The Muslim community, despite their growing power in terms of population size, was underrepresented in the Lebanese sectarian-based political system. The internal tension among the sects in Lebanon was used by foreign powers, particularly Egypt, Syria, and Israel, to enhance their power either through building alliances with various Lebanese groups or by direct intervention in Lebanese politics. In short, the problems associated with the Lebanese sectarian-based political system were exaggerated by regional developments.


The primary conflict between the Christian and Muslim militias ended with a peace settlement signed by the warring factions under the supervision of Saudi Arabia in October 1976. This agreement, although it did not resolve the primary conflict issues among the Muslims and Christians, brought relative stability and peace to Beirut. However, as O’Ballance (1998) reports, the post-Riyadh Conference period was characterized by several important events that led to another wave of violence. The conflict between the Syrian regime and Christian militias, the clash between the Druze and Palestinian militias and Syrian troops, the assassination of the Druze leader Junblat in 1977, the failure of the ADF to bring about order and end violence in Beirut, and the Israeli invasion of south Lebanon in response to the Palestinians’ raids into Israel in 1978 worsened the fragile situation in Lebanon. After the UN Security Council’s decision to send peacekeepers into south Lebanon, the warring factions agreed on another peace settlement in Beirut in April 1978.

Conflict Status

Several scholars argue that the war did not end in 1978 (e.g., Abu-Hamad 1995; Fearon and Laitin 2003; Nasr 1990; O’Ballance 1998; Sambanis 2004). It is not easy to determine when the war ended, mainly because of the number of actors involved. The civil war in Lebanon was fought not only between domestic groups but also between several foreign actors, such as the Palestinians, Syria, and Israel, and to a certain extent the United States, Libya, Iraq, Iran, and several other actors (O’Ballance 1998).

Nevertheless, the fighting between the local groups, mainly Christian militias and Muslim groups, substantially declined after the Riyadh Conference in 1976. After this, the violence continued between Syrian troops and Lebanese groups, between Muslims (PSP and PLO) and Christians in Beirut, and between Israeli forces and Palestinians in the south. Israel’s invasion of South Lebanon, as well as Syria’s direct control of north and east Lebanon and, to a lesser degree, of Beirut marked the period between the Riyadh Conference and the arrival of UNIFIL in south Lebanon in 1978 (O’Ballance 1998). The conflict, however, continued until 1990s. Following is a brief summary of the events that have occurred since the end of the 1975-1978 war.

The 1978-1980 period witnessed confrontations among the Christian groups. The division between expresident Faranjiyyah, a supporter of Syria, and the other two powerful Christian groups, the Phalangist militia and the NLP, resulted in the killing of several members of the Faranjiyya family, including Suleiman Faranjiyya’s son, Tony, and his wife and daughter in May 1978 (O’Ballance 1998). In the following months, Bashir Gamayel, the leader of the Phalangist militia, sought to create a United Maronite Army and clashed with the NLP forces. Meanwhile, the situation in the south was explosive owing to the conflict between Shi’a and PLO militias and Israel. In June 1982, Israel invaded Beirut, and under pressure from the Israeli forces, Bashir Gamayel was elected president. However, on September 14, 1982, he was killed by a bomb. This was followed by Israeli and Phalangist militia forces’ attacks on Sabra and Shatila, the Palestinian refugee camps in West Beirut, which resulted in thousands of deaths. In April 1983, international peacekeeping forces composed mainly of U.S. and French troops deployed to prevent further conflict between the Palestinians and Israeli forces withdrew from Beirut after a huge explosion at the U.S. Embassy (O’Ballance 1998).

The Lebanese civil war became a proxy war between several regional and global forces during the 1978-1990 period. Syria formed alliances with the PLO and other Muslim groups during this period in its fight against Israel. Israel, on the other hand, supported the hard-line Christian militia against Syria and other Muslim groups, primarily the PLO. Hezbollah, supported by the Iranian Islamic regime, became the single most influential Shi’a organization since the early 1980s and remains one of the most powerful groups in Lebanese politics.

The war finally came to an end with a peace settlement signed in Ta’if, Saudi Arabia, in October 1989. The clashes between the supporters of the Ta’if Accord and Syrian forces and the militia of Aoun, a Maronite Christian and an opponent of Syrian involvement in Lebanese politics, came to an end in October 1990, when Aoun sought political asylum in the French embassy (Norton 1991). In August 1991, the Lebanese parliament approved the constitutional reforms laid out in the agreement. The Ta’if agreement discarded the National Pact and called for the disarmament of militias and Syrian withdrawal to positions in Bekaa (Norton 1991). The political dominance of the Maronite Christians came to an end, and the principle of Christian-Muslim equity was accepted (O’Ballance 1998; Norton 1991).

The Ta’if agreement implicitly endorsed the congressional divisions laid out in the National Pact. The Maronites’ power was reduced in the system, and the Shi’a Muslims, despite their large number, gained only two seats in the parliament. In addition, the Alawis, an offshoot of Shi’a Islam with a close relationship to the Syrian regime, gained two seats in the parliament (Norton 1991).

Duration Tactics

The primary reason for the long duration of the Lebanese civil war was foreign intervention. The war between the domestic groups came to an end in October 1976. But the presence of the foreign powers, especially Syria and Israel, not only internationalized the war but also provided support to the warring factions to continue fighting. The Lebanese civil war became the war for Lebanon among the competing regional states. This is true especially of the post-Riyadh Conference period. From the late 1970s, Syria came to dominate Lebanese politics.

External Military Intervention

The impact of external powers on the Lebanese civil war was immense. The presence of external powers worsened the already delicate balance between the Muslim and Christian groups. After the war began, external powers became involved more directly.

Several countries intervened at one point of the war. Nevertheless, the Syrian and Israeli military interventions were consequential. Syria not only controlled and supported some groups against others but also directly controlled the east and north of Lebanon from 1976 on. Israel invaded South Lebanon and Beirut in 1978 and 1982. Israel withdrew its forces from Beirut in early 1985 but remained in South Lebanon until 2000 (O’Ballance 1998). Syria, through several peace agreements, preserved its influence in Lebanon. Syria withdrew its forces only after strong pressure from the United States and the international community following the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Harriri in February 2005. In short, external military support and intervention not only gave incentives to the domestic groups to start the war in 1975 but also provided them with financial and military resources to keep fighting.

Conflict Management Efforts

During the 1975-1978 period, conflict management efforts were conducted primarily by Saudi Arabia. A peace agreement was signed by the warring factions in 1976 in Riyadh. This agreement not only endorsed Syria’s role in Lebanon but also provided Syria the financial assistance to bring about order in Lebanon. The ADF was mainly composed of the Syrian troops and financed by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

UN involvement and mediation efforts came only after Israel became directly involved in Lebanon in 1978. Israel’s invasion of the south led the UN Security Council to call for a cease-fire and to establish a peacekeeping force in South Lebanon. Following Israel’s invasion of Beirut and increasing violence, the United States pressured Israel to pull back its forces, end the siege in West Beirut, and evacuate the Palestinian militias (O’Ballance 1998). The peacekeeping forces, consisting of U.S., French, and Italian troops, failed to restore order in Beirut and withdrew in 1983 (O’Ballance 1998).

In January 1989, the Arab League delegated the task of finding a solution to the Lebanese crisis to the king of Saudi Arabia, the king of Morocco, and the president of Algeria (Norton 1991). These efforts resulted in the Ta’if Accord, which ended the war and altered the balance of power among the local groups in Lebanon.


Several factors account for the Lebanese civil war. However, the sectarian-based political system and regional factors are the most important. The congressional political system based on the numerical strengths of each community not only exacerbated the divisions among the confessional groups but also hindered the development of cross-sectional political parties. The emergence of cross-sectional parties is more likely in areas where no group is dominant. Beirut, a city that contains roughly 50 percent of the total population, can provide the ground for the emergence of national parties.

One should avoid the common fallacy that the war in Lebanon was a war between Christians and Muslims. Sectarian and religious elements were only markers that differentiated one group from another. Although in the Lebanese context, the Druze and Alawi groups are considered Muslim, these groups are offshoots of Shi’a Islam and are quite secular. Druze, Alawi, and, to a certain extent, Shi’a communities, are considered to be heterodox in the Muslim world; they have been subjected to discrimination and persecution throughout history. Hence, although each group is defined in religious terms, political leaders are not clerics but rather secular heads of prominent families (Abu-Hamad 1995). In a secular, democratic Lebanon, a coalition of Druze and Alawi with Christians would not be surprising. Moreover, O’Ballance (1998, xi) reports that “in a recent brief visit to Lebanon I saw old enemies amicably drinking coffee together and chatting to each other as though little had happened.” Hence, Lebanese civil society has persisted, and the probability of reconciliation is high.

Nonetheless, there still remain some problems that are closely related to the probability of war recurrence. The first one is regional. The probability of a sustainable peace in postwar Lebanon is closely related to political developments in the region. The withdrawal of Israel and Syria from Lebanon is good news, but the conflict between these two countries is likely to affect the peace in Lebanon. Moreover, Palestinians account for 9 percent of the Lebanese society (Held 2000), and most of them are still not Lebanese citizens. Hezbollah has close ties to the Iranian Islamic regime and was supported by the Iranian regime during its fight against Israel. Thus, U.S.-Iran relations can also substantially impact the future of Lebanon.

The second and more important problem is systemic. The Ta’if agreement that ended the war in Lebanon implicitly endorsed sectarian divisions and power allocations in Lebanon. As argued earlier, one of the main reasons for the onset of the war in 1975 was the belief that Muslims were underrepresented in the political system. After more than a decade of conflict, the altered system still remains problematic. The single most populous sect, the Shi’a,’i is still underrepresented. Held (2000, 262) reports the estimated percentage of each sect in postwar Lebanon as follows: Shi’ite Muslim, 34 percent; Sunni Muslim, 20 percent; Maronite Christian, 19 percent; Greek Orthodox, 6 percent; Druze, 8 percent; Greek Catholic, 5 percent; Armenian Christian, 6 percent; and other, 2 percent. Despite the overwhelming numerical strength of the Shi’a community (34 percent), they have 22 seats, equal to the Sunni Muslims with 20 percent of the population and fewer than the Maronite Christians’ 30 seats with only 19 percent of population (Norton 1991). Therefore, despite their large population, Shi’a Muslims are the most disadvantaged group.

Hezbollah, a militant and fundamentalist Islamic group, has been successful in articulating Shi’a Muslims’ demands. Hezbollah is now a political party and represented in the parliament. The incorporation of Hezbollah into the political system is of vital importance. It can provide a guideline for policy makers and especially for the United States in dealing with the rising Islamic movement in the Middle East. The exclusion of Hezbollah or the failure to incorporate it into a democratic political system, however, can be consequential.