Shedding Light on Lebanon

An examination of the historical roots of a conflict that Americans are peculiarly ill suited to understand

The Maronites, according to their historians, arrived in Lebanon to escape the authority of the Abbasid caliphate in Syria, during the eighth century. The Syrian Christians were displaced into Lebanon in the early nineteenth century by the fanaticism of the Wahhabi reform movement, whose descendants today control Saudi Arabia. The Armenians arrived, as a result of Ottoman Turkish oppression, during and after the First World War.

Whether the communities arrived early or late, propinquity did not necessarily breed Christian fellowship. The large sects, among whom the Maronites stand first and the Greeks, Catholic and Orthodox, second, have a long record of disagreement; the Armenians, here as everywhere, stand somewhat apart, though they are widely admired for their industry and citizenship; the small sects take shelter under whose wing they can.

It seems probable that Lebanon, narrowly defined (about which more later), was largely Christian until the seventeenth century. But that does not mean that the rest of the population could be described, in contradistinction, as Moslem. Islam is almost as fissiparous as Christianity, and both of its main streams were represented in the country from early times: the orthodox Sunni and the schismatic Shia, who disagree about the descent of authority from Mohammed. But there is also present a branch of the Alawites, the Moslem minority sect to which President Hafez Assad belongs and through which he exercises power in Syria. Arid, of great local importance, there are the Druze.

The essence of the Druze religion is a closely guarded secret. As a result, the Druze may be regarded as a sort of Moslem sect or, alternatively, as nothing of the kind. In Israel, where numbers of Druze live, they cooperate with the state and provide a large contingent of the border police. In Lebanon, they are a power in their own right, with an ancient tradition and a proud record of resistance to foreign authority. The Druze appeared in the eleventh century, when they accepted the self-proclaimed divinity of one of the caliphs of Islam, and in the seventeenth century they set up as an independent polity. The secret nature of their religion resolves itself politically in a remarkable obedience to their own central authority and militarily in their famous fighting power.

SECTARIANISM COUNTS FOR LITTLE IN POLITICS unless the sects can defend themselves. Geography defends Lebanon's sects. On the central plateau of Turkey or in the riverine plain of Egypt, they might have dwindled into historical oddities. But Lebanon is mountain territory. "The Lebanon" is, indeed, a range of mountains, flanked by the Anti-Lebanon range, with the Bekaa Valley between them. "The Mountain" is how many Lebanese, and the Maronites in particular, refer to the region from which they spring. In the short but steep river valleys, many of entrancing beauty, that run from the watershed of the coastal range to the sea, minorities were for generations safely secluded from enemies and central authority. The coastal townsmdash;Tyre, Sidon, Tripoli, Beirut—became places of settlement for merchant immigrants, particularly Greek Orthodox and Catholics, and for the Sunni, whom the Ottoman regime favored. The Shia found room where they could. The intractable Maronites and the Druze made the Mountain their place of refuge. The mountains south of Beirut, particularly the Shouf, became the Druze heartland; the mountains to the north became "Marounistan," as journalists now call it, home to the Maronites. Geography did more than shelter the Druze and the Maronites. Because of the steepness of the river valleys running to the sea, which cut one group of villages off from the next, the standing of the valley chieftains was very sharply enhanced. Among the Druze, the calculated secrecy of their religion, which kept knowledge of the mysteries limited to a chosen few, overcame separatism. Among the Maronites, united in common belief, geography made each valley a family fief. The ancient quarrels of the feudal families persist to bedevil Christian—and so national—politics in Lebanon to this day. The most bizarre twist those quarrels have taken recently is the murderous exchanges between the two Maronite dynasties of the Franjiyehs and the Gemayels, resulting in the murder of the Franjiyeh heir apparent by Gemayel gunmen in June of 1978.

There are other mountain regions of the world whose inhabitants nurse a lofty isolationism and visit their local antagonisms on one another. Kurdistan is an obvious example. But the Kurds have the misfortune to sit astride a route to nowhere, so their long struggle for independence has failed to attract the world's attention. Lebanon straddles one of the greatest strategic corridors of conquest and trade. That is among its misfortunes.

No state seeking to exercise power in the Mediterranean or the Middle East can ignore events in Lebanon, any more than it can those in Israel. The two countries between the Syrian coast to the north and the fringe of Sinai to the south provide the land route connecting Asia with Africa. The time will no doubt come, as the great geopolitician Halford Mackinder predicted, when the technology of transportation will abolish the importance of land bridges. It has not done so yet. Historically, this one has been of the greatest significance. Along the narrow strip between desert and sea, armies have marched since the dawn of history. And though today the grazing land, water, and level ground that the route affords do not have the same military significance as when cavalry won battles, the route is still vital to power in the region. It is geography, as much as ideology or history, that makes Zionism a force to reckon with. It is the confusion of ideologies struggling for power over the same geography that makes Lebanon the plaything of external forces that it has become.

Yet, historically, the region has been under one rule far more often than not. It was so under the caliphates of the eighth and ninth centuries and again under the Ottomans from the sixteenth. In the interim, Mameluke and Crusader imperialism caused quite short-lived disruption. The international boundaries that chop through the great coastal route today are of recent and European making. The origin of those that define Israelis well known. The story of the delineation of Lebanon's boundaries is more complicated and obscure, though it begins at the same time.

AFTER THE FIRST WORLD WAR, ACCORDING TO plans laid during it, France became the mandatary power, under the League of Nations, in what today is Syria and Lebanon. Historically, "Syria" is the term for an eclectic region, loosely held by the Ottomans, lying between the Taurus Mountains of Turkey in the north and the desert of Sinai in the south and extending as far inland as the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates. The division of the region between British and French mandates, and the creation of the Arab kingdoms that they sponsored in Transjordan and Iraq, sundered that loose but historic unity. And the French went further. Rather than rule their mandated territory as a single unit, they chose to divide it into quarters: a Druze state in what is now southern Syria, an Alawite state in northern Syria, the rest of modern Syria, and "Greater Lebanon."

In creating this last state, the French were institutionalizing a separation that they had been instrumental in imposing on the Ottoman Empire sixty years before. The Ottoman Turks had ruled Syria since the sixteenth century, but had been content that its more remote regions should muddle along while paying their taxes and not disturbing the peace. Other mountain regions in the empire, like Albania and Montenegro—poor, backward, and awkward to administer—enjoyed similar dispensations. But "Mount Lebanon" differed from Turkey's other backwaters by reason of its Christian population and its links with the West. France had long since constituted itself the papacy's agent in relations with the Maronites; it provided them with missionaries and had founded their network of modern schools. In 1860, as a result of an outbreak of violence between Druze and Christians, in which 11,000 Christians were massacred in a few weeks, France led an international peace-keeping force into the country and insisted that the Turkish sultan re-order his rule there to prevent a recurrence.

The outcome was the creation of the Special Region (Mutesarrifate) of Mount Lebanon. Roughly coinciding with today's Druze and Christian heartlands, it was put under the governorship of a Christian non-Lebanese subject of the Turkish sultan, who answered directly to the sultan at Istanbul. The Special Region was divided into seven districts, whose boundaries were drawn along religious ones and whose headmen were to elect an administrative council the composition of which would reflect the size of the different religious groups. Maronites and Druze predominated. It was under this liberal and successful system of government that Mount Lebanon was ruled until the Ottoman Empire collapsed, in 1918.

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