Israel Joins Lebanon’s Civil War

Earlier today a former student of mine asked me for my thoughts on Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. I responded directly to him, and decided that because Chirol, Mark, Tom, and everyone else is chatting about the subject I will post my thoughts on the blogosphere as well.

The context is the Lebanese civil war, which was fought by the three largest ethnicities in Lebanon

Shia: ~40% (client of Iran)
Sunni: ~30% (client of Saudi Arabia)
Catholic: ~30% (client of France)

When the French decolonized they left the Catholics in charge with Sunnis as deputies, and for the first thirty years things went relatively well. (The Shia were poor, but no one really cared about them.) A lot of Catholics moved to France or America, decreasing their numbers, but in spite of that things remained stable.

Around 1980 Yasser Arafat’s PLO invades Lebanon (if that seems stupid, it was)…

The country was thrown into confusion, and in order to get
rid of them Syria and Israel launch a joint invasion. (Both hated Arafat much more than they feared each other.) The PLO is thrown out (they leave for Tunisia), and Lebanon is split into two military regions: the larger one controlled by Syria and the smaller one controlled by Israel. Fighting between the three main groups and various smaller sects continues for a while, but eventually the Israelis and Syrians restored peace to the country. Because the small minority that runs Syria is Shia like the Iranians, the Syrians prop up Shia militias (the biggest one being Hezbollah). The Catholics and Sunnis go back to normal life.

Because the Catholics and Sunnis were traditionally more market-oriented than the Shia, the peace is good to them. With Saudi money and French connections they do extremely well, and the Lebanese economy booms under Catholic and Sunni businessmen. In the late 1990sthe Israelis withdraw, figuring that the magic of corruption has returned Lebanon to “normal.” The Syrians maintain their military sphere, and the only Israeli military command region is taken over by Hezbolalh.

The Catholic/Sunni increase in wealth during the boom meant that those groups started to resent the extra privileges the Shia (Hezbollah) had in the country. Right after the civil war when the country was poor the arrangement made sense because you needed the Syrians to get anything done, but the Catholics/Sunnis had passed all that by. One prominent businessman (Rafik Hariri) got himself elected as PM, was given Saudi citizenship, and had a number of French cabinet officials on his “payroll.” The Shia (meaning the Syrians and Iranians) knew that they were losing their grip, so decided to do something about it.

The solution was to blow up Hariri. The hope was that this would show the Catholics/Sunnis that the Shia still controlled the security situation, and they better show more respect. Instead this was a disaster, as suddenly everyone who the Catholics/Sunnis were friends with and/or paid off (the Saudis, the French, the Americans, etc) were extremely angry. The backlash culminated in the “cedar revolution,” where the Syrian army was forced to withdraw (not placing Lebanon under a large Government (former Syrian) military region and a small Hezbollah/Shia (formerly Israeli) military region). So immediately before Hezbollah’s kidnapping of the Israel soldiers, most of the country was in Catholic/Sunni hands while only Hezbollah’s portion was definitely Shia.

Iran probably strongly encouraged the kidnapping in order to make Israel fight on two fronts (both Gaza and Lebanon), but from Hezbollah’s perspective the point was to demonstrate that they must be taken seriously. The Shia are the poorest group in Lebanon, so military strength is how they get anything.

When Israel bombed Beirut’s airport and started destroying Lebanon’s roads, the Lebanese government strongly condemned… Hezbollah. Israel is entering the Lebanese civil war on the side of the Sunnis/Catholics. Israel has said that it will only stop fighting if either the Lebanese government (meaning Sunni/Catholic forces) or an international force (meaning anyone but the Shia) take over Hezbollah’s military sphere.

At this point, all sides have probably written off the captured Israelis as dead. They are no longer the point. The Lebanese (Catholic/Sunni) and Israel objective is the military destruction of Hezbollah. The Shia (Hezbollah/Syrian/Iranian) objective is the political reinforcement of Hezbollah. It is interesting to watch.