Lebanon’s war and its legacy four decades later
Beirut - In its day, Lebanon’s nearly 16- year civil war was a byword for brutality. But, 40 years on, time has softened the terror of the gut-wrenching street battles between sectarian militias, Israel’s blistering, three-month bombardment of West Beirut in 1982, the massacres of Palestinians in Tel Zaatar and Sabra and Chatila, the suicide bombings that Hezbollah pioneered to change the face of terrorism forever, years before Osama bin Laden came along and transformed the tactic into slaughter on an industrial scale.
The anniversary of the war that began on April 13, 1975, in Beirut, a free-wheeling, self-indulgent Mediterranean city then known as the Paris of the Middle East, has been accentuated by another bloody milestone, the decade since Rafik Hariri, the billionaire prime minister who restored post-war Beirut as a symbol of rebirth and human resilience, was killed in a massive bomb ambush on the city’s seafront corniche on February 14, 2005.
That high-profile assassination of Lebanon’s most prominent statesman demonstrated how little things had changed in Lebanon; how it remained the plaything of regional powers and their rivalries.
There’s been a long line of such assassinations stretching back decades and it continues to this day, with anti-Syrian activists and security chiefs the primary targets.
The ghost of Hariri, and the estimated 150,000 men, women and children who perished in the 1975-90 civil war, the 200,000 wounded, the 17,000 still missing, many of them believed to languishing in Syrian prisons, haunt Lebanon still, as does the dark shadow of Syria, Lebanon’s tormenter.
Despite the sparkling, haute-couture downtown that Hariri rebuilt on the ruins of the wartime battleground, even restoring the old Ottoman and French architecture, these are a constant reminder of Lebanon’s capacity for self-destruction and the manipulation of its feudal warlords and robber barons by outsiders.
Syria, which has long claimed Lebanon is part of historical Greater Syria and coveted its mercantile virtuosity, was predominant among them. It’s still at it today. Lebanon is in danger of being dragged into Syria’s murderous civil war where Hezbollah, the most powerful force in Lebanon, is fighting to save the embattled regime of President Bashar Assad, a strategic asset of Tehran.
Lebanon’s war was in many ways the forerunner of the cauldron of conflicts afflicting the Middle East from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean.
It spawned Hezbollah in the early 1980s, which lifted up the long-marginalised Shia in a land dominated by Sunnis and Christians.
Hezbollah is a child of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, which emboldened by the US-led overthrow of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003, is now engaged in a quest to dominate the region from the Afghanistan border to south Lebanon, right on Israel’s doorstep.
And its sword arm is Hezbollah and other Shia militias it has recruited in Iraq, Syria and as far eastward as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Lebanon’s conflict pales in comparison to the unadulterated savagery of the one in Syria — and that’s saying something because what took place in Lebanon was once regarded as the benchmark for the potential barbarism of sectarian hatred and state decomposition,” observed Lebanese analyst Michael Young, who lived through much of the war in Beirut.
“The word ‘Lebanisation’ is still used these days but it is almost beginning to sound quaint in light of the merciless slaughter in other parts of the Middle East.”
The carnage and destruction the Lebanese witnessed in 1975-90, he said, is acting as a brake to the rise in tensions between the country’s Shia and Sunnis — a product of the wider confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia — and preventing a new surge of fighting.
Walid Jumblatt is leader of Lebanon’s Druze Muslims and led one of the country’s ablest and most disciplined militias throughout the war and is now a pivotal political icon who counsels accommodation and diplomacy. He recently observed on his Twitter account: “I was one of the factions driven by fanaticism and hatred. My advice to (my son) Taymour, and every Lebanese youth is to beware of violence and ignorance.”
Hariri’s son and political successor, Saad, warned in an anniversary statement that the Lebanese should “never again” allow themselves to be manipulated into another civil war. “We will never allow it to return,” he cautioned. “We cannot protect Lebanon if we do not stop surrounding fires from reaching it, or worse, if we keep throwing ourselves into their flames.”
The Lebanese have to a large extent locked away their memories of the war, producing what psychiatrists might call “collective amnesia”. The warlords who survived the bloodletting led the way: In 1991, parliament decreed that no political leaders would be prosecuted for atrocities committed during the war.
And now these men are political leaders, wheeling and dealing with their former foes. The only warlord who spent any time behind bars was Samir Geagea, staunchly anti-Syrian and involved in some of the bloodier episodes of the conflict as leader of the Lebanese Forces. He, like the others, nowadays dons a suit and has become a politician.