The Lebanese Civil War: Lessons for Iraq

Rahman Dag*;

Historically, Iraq has never been in a situation comparable with today. Ethnic and religious diversity has always been pressured by strict monarchs or dictators. In 2002 the USA and its allies invaded Iraq with the ironic slogan that the war was to bring democracy to the people of Iraq and release them from the Saddam’s oppressive regime. Up to now, no indication of democracy and stability has been witnessed in the country. As it can easily be seen from the current situation in Iraq, the conditions are getting worse at a time of profoundly important decisions regarding issues such as the status of Kirkuk and the evacuation of US army. So what will happen to Iraq? This question and the individual circumstances of Iraq remind us of the example of Lebanon. Lebanon experienced almost the same social and ethnic conditions leading to the civil war of 1975, and without international consensus to provide stability Iraq may be facing a similar war due to the its social and religious structure.

To begin with we have the numerical data which illustrates the particular features of Iraq in diversity of ethnicity and religions. As illustrated above, according to more recent statistics by the CIA Fact book; the total population is 3,826,018 (July 2005). 59.7% of the Lebanese population is Muslims, while 40% are Christians.1 Shi’a Muslims are 27% or 25%, Sunni Muslims are 24% or 25% and Druzes constitute 5% of the population. And it is estimated that the Christian population is about 39% (or 35%) of the total population. The Maronites are the largest of the Christian groups. On the other hand, the population of Iraq is 28,945,657 (July 2009). 75%-80% of population is Arab, 15%-20% of them are Kurdish, 5% of them are Turcoman, Assyrian, or other. Religious structure is: Muslim 97% (Shi’a 60%-65%, Sunni 32%-37%), Christian or other 3%. In Lebanon and Iraq, there is no sense of Lebanese or Iraqi identity because every group gives priority to their sectarian or nationality rather than supraidentity.

The figures above allow an easy comparison of the demographic structure of Iraq and Lebanon and it can be obviously said that different ethnic and religious origins which have been the fundamental reasons for civil war in Lebanon are found in both states even though the numbers and percentages are not the same. Both of them consist of distinctive nationalities and religious groups. On the one hand, in Lebanon, there are Palestinians, Syrians, and Jordanians as Arab nationalities and additionally Phalanges who are originally French as well as Sunnis and Shiite as religious sects. On the other hand, In comparison to Iraq, there are Kurdish and Arabs as different origins and Christians, Sunnis and Shi’a sectarians. Compared to Lebanon, most of the groups have their own armed forces. If the availability and proximity of armed groups and the other differences are considered, it is obvious that any small flames might cause disproportionate reactions.

These differences have made Iraq sensitive and vulnerable to any incident in the country. In addition to this situation, the purpose of all majorities is to obtain as many advantages as they can over other groups in Iraq. For instance, Kurds want to have their own regional government, Sunnis try to get the official position back and Shi’a people are eager for the proportional representation in the executive and legislative body to take advantage of their population which is more than 50%. Even, at the beginning of the invasion, Shiite Islamist leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim declared their demand for autonomy as a Shi’a state. It is obvious that the requests of all three major groups are incompatible but they insist on what they want. As a result of this, in spite of the presence of the USA in the country, the escalation of clashes and domestic war seems inevitable. If this happens, can the state of affairs be called a civil war?

Due to not having a commonly accepted definition of a civil war, it is not easy to name the condition of Iraq as a civil war, but the most accepted definition of civil war employed by the U.S. Army is worth consideration. It lists five criteria to recognize civil war, which are: 1) the contestants must control territory; 2) there must be a functioning government; 3) each side must enjoy some foreign recognition; 4) the sides should have identifiable and regular armed forces; 5) they should engage in major military2 activity. In light of these criteria, Patten states that now, Iraq has only the first of these conditions, therefore Iraq cannot be regarded as a state which suffers from a civil war even though he also added that it has a very high potential to experience a social conflict as Lebanon had, due to consisting of distinguished nations and sectarians who have different demands and interests. Another description by David Singer3 might be applied to Iraq’s current condition, which is one of “sustained military combat, primarily internal, resulting in at least 1,000 battle deaths per year, pitting central government forces against insurgents.” If this definition is implemented to the Iraq, it possibly can be said that Iraq is experiencing several civil wars. The general consensus among scholars is that Iraq has not yet experienced civil war but it probably will happen soon if the conditions are not taken under control.

“…the purpose of all majorities is to obtain as many advantages as they can over othergroups in Iraq.” 

It is believed that the civil war in Lebanon started with the killing of four Phalanges in Beirut on April 13, 1975; this incident was followed by significant reactions. Ultimately, “it is estimated that more than 100,000 were killed, and another 100,000 left handicapped, during Lebanon’s 16-year civil war. Up to onefifth of the pre-war resident population, or about 900,000 people, were displaced from their homes, of whom perhaps a quarter of a million emigrated permanently.”4 In Iraq, “The estimate that over a million Iraqis have died received independent confirmation from a prestigious British polling agency in September 2007.” Opinion Research Business estimated that 1.2 million Iraqis have been killed violently since the US-led invasion.5 These numbers prove that Iraq is in crisis (although still not officially regarded as a civil war). Yet if it turns to civil war, the outcome cannot be imagined. To prevent this possible inconceivable domestic war, it is time to look at similar incidents in Lebanon and take some lessons.

Before considering the lessons that can be derived from the Lebanon example, it should be underlined that the result of possible civil war in Iraq would be more destructive than Lebanon. This is because of profound differences in natural resources; oil which every group would try to benefit from and a population which is nearly four times that of Lebanon. In addition to this, there are hundreds of small and sub sectarian groups and, most of them with their own paramilitary forces. This is concrete evidence for more devastating outcomes of possible civil war in Iraq and sufficient reason to take lessons from the Lebanese experience.

Firstly, the most significant lesson that must be taken into account in Iraq is that the division of power for basic governmental institutions should be arranged proportionately, for example, the proportion of Christians and Muslim had been estimated as 6:5, respectively but after the 1967 Arab-Israel6 war and “Black September”7 huge amounts of Palestinians and Jordanians migrated to Lebanon and this changed the proportion of religious group majority (1:1), which was not reflected in the ratio of power that different group had. There was no constitutional guarantee for the division of power except for a verbal agreement. Therefore, the division of power between the different groups should be addressed in the constitution.

Secondly, it is known that the partial solutions in Lebanon civil war were reached by the Syrian intervention which was endorsed by regional states. At the end of the Civil War, all belligerents groups as well as the international community agreed that Syrian involvement in the conflict was not the best, but was at least a rational option to prevent the conditions getting worse. Eventually, the final solution was obtained in Lebanon with the international peace keeping force established by the UN. That instance shows that peace and security cannot be reached in a country without international consensus and consent of all the belligerent groups. In comparison, there is still no consensus among belligerent groups about the international or national force to provide the stability. For instance, almost all Sunni and some Shi’a sectarian groups still attack each other and national and international forces. That is why, neither Iraqi government nor American troops have provided stability or security in daily life. If these conditions continue, whilst there is no international consensus and pressure to tackle problems, religious and national clashes might be expected to appear in the short term. This example indicates that the decisions to tackle the social conflicts should be taken together by regional and even international consensus.

Thirdly, “the mission of invading power should not be engaged in direct, deliberate combat or actively protecting the population on the ground. Their mission only can be supportive, and their presence should have a low profile.” (Kaplan, 2009) If other states join the conflicts, they must choose one belligerent side to fight but this only increase other groups’ reaction. In other words, it makes the conditions worse not better. As a result of this, the U.S.A army force should avoid actively participating in a battle.

Finally, the structure of a new national army is a vital issue for providing stability for the future (Baker, 2006). In Lebanon, every prime minister had a tendency to use military power against dissident people, yet this was rejected by the general. According to unwritten military understanding, the general of Lebanon army was Maurine. This made people think of the army as an official institution of the state belonging to the Maurine people, creating dissatisfaction among other groups. Due to this, the Lebanese army was completely ineffective during the civil war. In comparison, the Baath party deliberately appointed a Sunni general for the head of the Iraq army (during Saddam’s dictatorship) with similar reactions seen by the other major sectarians (Shiites) and ethnic group (Kurdish) as those in Lebanon. That is one of the main reasons not to have a sense of supra-identity as being Iraqi. So now, it is clear that the new army of Iraq should not be based on one sectarian group or nationality. The Iraqi government should recreate an Iraq Army that is acceptable to every single person living in Iraq.

Iraq has not reached a state of civil war, yet. It is undeniable that there is massive instability in every aspect and a significant number of deaths every day. To halt these deaths and maintain the stability, like in Lebanon, there must be international agreement on Iraq. The worst consequence of the ongoing conditions in Iraq will be civil war unless several lessons from Lebanon’s experience are taken while the country is being reconstructed after the invasion. PR

* Rahman Dag is an MA student at SOAS.
1. CIA, World Factbook, Lebanon – People”. Central Intelligence Agency. December 18 , 2008. publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ le.html#People. Retrieved on 2009-01-08
2. “Terms and Definitions,” Military Operations in Low Intensity Conflict, U.S. Army Field Manual 100-20, Dec. 5, 1990.
3. He is a political Science professor and former consultant to the U.S. Department of Defence and Department of State
4. Lebanon (Civil War 1975-1991) http:// war/lebanon.htm
5. J u s t F o r e i g n P o l i c y , h t t p : / /
6. 1967 Arab-Israel War (The Six-Day War) of June 5-10, 1967 was a war between the Israel army and the armies of the neighbouring states of Egypt, Jordan, and S y r i a . h t t p : / / e n . w i k i p e d i a . o r g / wiki/1967_Arab-Israeli_War
7. Black September in Jordan, the conflict between Palestinian guerrilla organizations and King Hussein of Jordan that began in September 1970 and ended in July 1971 with the expulsion of the PLO to Lebanon. h t t p : / / e n . w i k i p e d i a . o r g / w i k i / Black_September

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