by David Anderson
The 15 year civil war in Lebanon last century can teach us about the future of the neighboring Syrian mess: they do look alike.
Like Washington state-sized Syria, Connecticut-sized Lebanon was a French colony. Pre-WW2 manners dictated the British and French politely divide this “Levant” (the “L” in ISIL) area into colonies: the “lucky” Brits kept Palestine, later Israel, and Jordan. The French had Lebanon and larger Syria.
Moving from geography class to history: at Lebanon’s independence in the 1930s, the sectarianism which currently tears the region apart was foreseen by the French who set up a power sharing agreement between Muslims and Christians. The later internecine Sunni/Shiite sectarianism was unpredicted. Censuses were banned, and eventually the Muslims out-bred the Christians. So ultimately the power sharing system got out of whack, Israel happened, and by 1975 the tinderbox that was Lebanese demographics exploded. It was a bloody mess – wrecking decades of life for millions.
Throughout the 1980s we witnessed nightly news horrors: then-new “suicide bombings,” Swiss cheese shot-through buildings, exploding Mercedeses, and even a brief US involvement until Reagan wisely cut and ran after the Marine compound bombing in 1983. Lebanon became a no-go area as Syria invaded and turned it into its colony. America, Europe, and your correspondent’s country of Australia accepted hundreds of thousands of Lebanese refugees. As an aside: today those refugees are proud, peaceful Australians regardless of religion.
Lebanon’s war ground on, and like Syria now, regional and global powers bought a piece of the action – the Iranian and Syrian Shiites via Hezbollah, the Israelis and Christendom broadly backing the Maronite Christians.
Today, though, Syria’s war is worse: the world is more multi-polar, particularly with our “America-First” neo-isolationism pulling the U.S. out. Russia has filled the vacuum of our departure and has really come to the party in this war: Assad is a friend of theirs and, more importantly, the conflict allows Russia to show off, prove, and thus sell their bombs and jets. After oil, arms are their main export racket.
What ultimately ended the tragedy of Lebanon, according to analysts and locals your correspondent spoke with there in 2008, was that after 15 years the partisans just ran out of steam: the multiple, shifting alliances ran short of young men willing to die. Foreign funding to pay for their meat grinder of a war dried up. Ultimately this will happen in Syria but there are slightly different external factors effecting and extending this outcome.
ISIS-style Islam is a game changer. Unlike now, in the tragic Christian vs Sunni vs Shi’ite ménage a trois in Lebanon, nihilistic millennialist fanatic Islam was still in its initial ascendancy. The parties to the Lebanese war were all tribal, with religion following tribal loyalties, not the other way around.
After the war Lebanon was politically dismembered just as Syria will be: Lebanon became a Syrian colony for 30 years until the Lebanese stood up and said “Enough!” to Assad, but the Shi’ites and Iran retained and even embedded Hezbollah as a political force there permanently. The Sunni groups melted and dissolved into the Lebanese government we see today, for better or worse. Many Christians emigrated. Lebanon rebuilt – but you still see pock-marked old buildings in Beirut and every few years Hezbollah gets obstreperous, and Israel visits from above in jets.
As with Lebanon a generation ago, soon the neighbors will take parts of Syria. Turkey might gobble up the North: not as official colonizer, mind you, just as a local heavy, if only to secure an area to keep their perennial fight against the Kurds outside – rather than inside – their homeland. They’ll call it a trusteeship, we a “safe-zone,” and the UN will say “fine”. Turkey may pretend Northern Syria is a country it’s “saving” from the Kurds, like the phony Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus with Greeks – another story for another day. America will no doubt promise everything; safe zones, Trump golf courses, etc., and then abandon the poor Kurds. Again.
If ISIS wins and Damascus falls to them, they’ll absolutely attack Israel, as they’ve repeatedly promised, and the next Israeli-Syrian border could be redrawn in the suburbs of Damascus. The smart money, though, is the Caliphate won’t last that long as a “state”, as the current decline might portend.
ISIS still matters though, as do other fundamentalist Islamic participants in Syria. They have a larger influence than they did in Lebanon. Religiosity in Lebanon was following a sectarian-social divide: in formerly secular Syria it’s the opposite. Now “tribes” are defined by which particular sect of Islam one follows, not a consequence. This portends a prolonged catastrophe. When one is fighting for one’s tribe, like in Lebanon, exhaustion does set in. But when one is fighting for one’s god, for a place in a fairy-tale paradise, it’s a fight to the death. For example: in Lebanon in the 1980s the Israelis made headway against the Sunnis of South Lebanon who weren’t afraid to kill, but Israel was stopped in its tracks then, and now, by Shi-ite Hezbollah who aren’t afraid to die. Shi’ism is more martyrdom centered by doctrine, whereas political Sunniism owes its recent ISIS success to the adoption of this dynamic. All rationality is lost when it’s primarily a religious war.
Even if its opponents ultimately subdue the physical land of ISIS, the caliphate dream will live on. Their ideology will continue in cyberspace and in the wrecked parts of broken countries and traumatized minds, infecting wherever there is a failed state or region. Radical Islamists will be killing themselves and us for generations.
Back to Lebanon – it’s surprisingly important here: barely holding together, they’re terrified the war next door will upset a tense peace. One fifth of Lebanon’s population consists of unwelcome Syrian refugees, traumatized and in horrible economic circumstances. Equally fragile neighboring Jordan is a short shot from collapse, and chaotic Iraq….a topic for another day.
Only a fool would predict, so here goes: Lebanon’s war lasted 15 years, but Syria’s will last longer because the foreign backers are in it for the long haul: for global, not regional, victory. Fighting for God keeps the conflict going longer than fighting for tribe, and fundamentalist Islam in its current political form is exportable from (and to) failed states. Settle in for the long term, and if you’re Syrian: run.
David Anderson is an Australian-American attorney in New York City. He studied Middle East politics at the University of Melbourne and Georgetown University. He also writes for Forbes and counterpunch.org.
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