Lebanon declared its independence from France in November 1941, becoming a charter member of the United Nations (UN) in 1945 and a member of the Arab League the same year. However, sectarian differences served as a basis for internal strife, as did regional and international conflicts. Although the Maronites continued to control Lebanon, the relative growth of other groups—mainly Islamic—brought that control into contest.
Sectarian tensions have plagued Lebanon since independence. The growing Muslim population led ultimately to dissatisfaction with Christian dominance. This strife has been exacerbated by regional and international conflicts. Lebanon's membership in the Arab League embroiled the country in the Arab-Israeli conflict from the very beginning of Israeli independence in 1948, with Lebanese forces joining other Arab nations to crush the Jewish state.
The Cold War also played a part in Lebanon's woes, as both the United States and the Soviet Union sought influence in the region by supporting various regimes at odds with each other. A turning point came in 1958. That year, the pro-Western monarchy in Iraq fell and was replaced by a government that seemed to tilt toward the Soviet bloc. Egypt had already rejected Western support in favor of Soviet aid in building the Aswan Dam and was pursuing union with Syria, which still had claims to Lebanon. Lebanon's Maronite-controlled government responded by requesting American aid, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent U.S. Marines to Beirut to stabilize the region. The intervention worked. Muslim and Christian Lebanese appeared to be working together in recognition of the growing power of the Muslim population.
This seeming accommodation was short-lived, for regional conflicts now took center stage. Since 1948 there had been more than 100,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, some of whom pursued guerrilla operations against Israel. Lebanese Muslims generally supported the Palestinians, while the Christian population opposed guerrilla operations, fearful that these would lead to Israeli reprisals that would threaten Lebanese independence. The Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973 coupled with the expulsion of Palestinian guerrillas from Jordan in 1970–1971 increased the power of the Palestinians in Lebanon. Indeed, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) established its headquarters in Beirut.
The Lebanese Army tried to restrain the guerrillas, but this led to sectarian clashes between the Maronites and Muslims. Civil war broke out in 1975. The subsequent chaos involved years of conflict between Lebanese Christians and Lebanese Muslims. Lebanese of both faiths were often at odds with the Palestinians. In addition, occupation of various parts of Lebanon by chiefly Syrian but also Israeli and Palestinian forces as well as terrorist attacks on French and American military forces posted there in the early 1980s only added to the unrest. The human toll resulting from Lebanon's strife has been tremendous. Indeed, in some of the worst of the fighting during March 1975–November 1976, some 40,000 Lebanese were killed and 100,000 wounded.
The end of the Cold War did not mean the end of civil conflict in Lebanon. It continued, with Syria, a former Soviet client state, dominating the country with an active military presence. Although Syrian forces departed in 2005, Lebanon still suffers from the complex nature of its internal struggles and will likely remain a pawn in regional conflicts.
Daniel E. Spector
Bamberg, James. British Petroleum and Global Oil, 1950-75: The Challenge to Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.; Rabil, Robert G. Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel and Lebanon. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2003.; U.S. Army. Area Handbook Series: Lebanon. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989.