Join Active Minds as we trace the history of the current situation in Lebanon. We will provide the background necessary to understand the rise of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shiite militia, and Lebanon’s role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, including the complex relationship with its neighbor Syria. Come learn how this important country fits into the puzzle that is the Middle East.

Key Lecture Points

  • The earliest inhabitants of the region we now know as Lebanon were the Canaanites or Phoenicians. These Phoenicians survived nearly constant invasion from regional empires, contributing to the significant cultural, ethnic and religious diversity in Lebanon today.
  • During the first millennium, Melkite Christianity, Maronite Christianity and Islam became the region’s most prominent religions.
  • What is now Lebanon came under the control of the Ottoman Empire from 1516 through the end of World War One, when it became part of The French Mandate of Syria and the Lebanon. Lebanon became independent in 1943.
  • Lebanon is a “confessional state,” where power is allocated partially on the basis of religious representation. Lebanon’s Constitution and informal “National Pact” protect this status quo.
  • 500,000 Palestinian refugees fled to Lebanon following the Arab-Israeli War of 1948-49, the Six Days War of 1967 and the expulsion of Palestinian refugees from Jordan in 1970.
  • The Lebanese Civil War began in 1975, after several militia members killed four Maronite political party members in a failed assassination attempt on the Maronite leader. Maronites blamed Palestinians and attacked a bus carrying Palestinians later that day. The government had no clear means to control the fighting. The war eventually involved troops from Syria, Israel, the US, Italy and France.
  • In the 1980s, Iran supported the founding of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist political party and military. Today, Hezbollah holds significant legitimate political power in the country; the group’s paramilitary wing is also considered perhaps the most competent and experienced military force in the Arab world.
  • The 1989 Taif Accord marked the first steps toward ending the war. By 1991, all militias except Hezbollah had been dissolved, marking the end of the formal Lebanese Civil War. Syrian troops remained in Lebanon until the Cedar Revolution of 2005.
  • The 2008 Doha Accord created a national unity government and parliament successfully elected a Christian Maronite president. The accord also deepened the legitimacy of Hezbollah as a force in Lebanese politics, even while the US identified it as a primary target in the War on Terror.
  • Today, Lebanese politics are dominated by two coalitions. The March 14 Alliance is an anti-Syrian alliance of Sunni Muslims and some Maronite Christians lead by Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The Hezbollah-dominated March 8 Alliance unites Hezbollah with many Maronite and other Christian political parties led by President Michel Aoun. The March 8 Alliance emerged from the 2018 elections with the largest electoral bloc.
  • Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Lebanon has seen a rise in sectarian violence as well as increased friction between the anti-Syrian March 14 Alliance and the pro-Syrian March 8 Alliance.
  • Lebanon struggled with extremist militants in Syria crossing the Syria-Lebanon border. The conflict finally came to an end in 2017, when the Lebanese Army, Hezbollah forces and the Syrian Army drove ISIS out of its last stronghold in Lebanon.
  • Hezbollah has taken an active role in the Syrian Civil War, fighting alongside the Syrian military of President Bashar al-Assad. Its participation has undermined its credibility both domestically and internationally.
  • Syrians have been immigrating to Lebanon since the end of the Syrian occupation in 2005. Lebanon has become one of the most popular destinations for Syrians fleeing violence. There are more than 1 million refugees in Lebanon; some analysts estimate that number may be higher than 2 million. Relations between Lebanese and Syrians have deteriorated. In 2018, many Lebanese municipalities began to forcibly evict Syrians. In late summer, the Lebanese government put out calls for refugees to voluntarily return to areas of Syria were fighting has quieted.

Exploration Questions

  • What are some reasons for conflicts about identity in Lebanon? Are the reasons primarily historical, or primarily based on outside intervention in the country? How has the Syrian Civil played into different ideas about Lebanese identity?
  • What are the major obstacles to the success of the new coalition government in Lebanon?
  • Is Lebanon a model for other governments, where religious difference is a fundamental part of political identity?

Reflective Questions

  • What are your impressions of Lebanon? How did you form your impressions (media, knowing people from the region, reading history, firsthand experience)?
  • Do you remember when Lebanon became an independent country? How did most Americans see the event? How has Lebanon changed over the past 70 years?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Gelvin, James L. The New Middle East: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford, 2017. 208 pages. A history and analysis of conflicts in the modern Middle East, beginning in 1945.
    Click here to order
  • Norton, Augustus Richard. Hezbollah: A Short History. 3rd ed. Princeton, 2018. Reviewed by Newsweek as “the best recent study of Hezbollah.”
    Click here to order
  • Cleveland, William L. and Martin Bunton. A History of the Modern Middle East. 6th ed. Westview Press, 2016. 624 pages. A comprehensive outline of Middle Eastern history, including the history of Lebanon and how Lebanese history intersects with the history of the region.
    Click here to order
  • Friedman, Matti. Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War. Algonquin Books, 2017. 272 pages. The memoir of one Israel soldier fighting in Southern Lebanon in the late 1990s.
    Click here to order