Three hard lessons for Syria from Lebanon’s civil war

Three hard lessons for Syria from Lebanon’s civil war

While the prospect of all-out war in Lebanon is unlikely, the country’s own experience might draw some important lessons on how Syria’s conflict may eventually end.

A day before the attacks in Paris, ISIS carried out twin bombings in the southern Beirut neighborhood of Bourj el-Barajneh. A largely Shia area, it was also home to a number of Syrian refugees, as well as Palestinians.

As the US and Russia negotiate over Syria, Lebanon’s own multifaceted conflict (1975 to 1990) could yield clues for how the Syrian crisis might end. Lebanon also went through its own exodus of nearly a million refugees; foreign intervention, multiple rounds of peace talks, large scale terrorist acts, and military stalemates.

As Syria’s peace talks in Vienna continue it is important to draw some lessons from Lebanon’s war and what it might mean for a post-war Syria.

Not all militias will disarm

During the Lebanese Civil War, many sectarian militias established control of their parts of the country, turning Lebanon into a pock-marked collection of fiefdoms much like how Syria is today.

Beirut was divided with the Christian Phalanges militia in the East and Muslim militias that largely supported the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in the West which were separated by the Green Line, a virtual no-man’s land.

It is imperative to understand that the total disarmament of militias does not necessarily have to coincide with the end of the war. Some militias, such as the South Lebanese Army, Phalanges, and Amal disarmed but Hezbollah stayed on. Hezbollah is now heavily relied upon by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) as key component of Lebanon’s national security. They monitor check points alongside Lebanese soldiers and conduct counter-terrorism intelligence.

The same could someday be possible for Sunni militia Ahrar al-Sham. As part of a negotiated agreement, Ahrar al Sham could absorb Jabhat al-Nusra and take on the role of protecting Syria’s Sunnis from government reprisals. They could also be essential for rooting out any ISIS remnants within the Sunni community once they are forced to go underground.

Other militias, such as the Assad government’s multi-sectarian National Defence Forces (NDF) could be disbanded or absorbed into the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). However, for Iran, the NDF is a vital part in guaranteeing its interests in Syria. The NDF’s fate will largely be dependent on the direction Sunni groups take after any settlement.

Leaders come and leaders go

A common factor surrounding the Syrian negotiations is the future of Assad. Lebanon’s war illustrated how the presence of political and military leaders was vital to tempo of the conflict.

Bachir Gemayel, a Christian from the Phalange party was assassinated in 1982 following his election by a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). This factor is widely thought to have led to the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

Yasir Arafat, another central player in Lebanon’s conflict, was forced into exile in Tunisia. However, this did not end the fighting and the remaining forces belonging to the PLO were engaged in several intense battles with Shia militias including the War of the Camps from 1985-86. The Bourj el-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp, suffered wide-scale destruction.

What do these signs indicate for Assad? The Obama Administration is adamant that Assad will not be part of Syria’s long term solution: Russia is still attempting to rebuff Western pressure on this front. What would be the result of his exile in Russia? His replacement with a military figure from the SAA could lead to a political settlement only to pave way for Assad’s return to politics in Syria at a later time. However, the Syria Assad would return to could be a stark contrast from the rubber stamp parliament he was used to.

Real peace will be tentative and slow

The average civil war lasts between seven to twelve years. Lebanon’s war had multiple stages. Peace talks and outside intervention occurred at various phases of the war. In the fall of 1978, Arab Gulf States foreign ministers met in Beit al-Dine and negotiated an end to a sub-conflict called “the Hundred Days’ War” between the Syrian Army and the Christian Lebanese Front militias.

Later, the May 17th Agreement, forged with Israel by Bachir’s successor, Amine Gemayel, on the other hand, was derided by Arab Gulf States and led to a surge in fighting.

Ceasefires between the Assad government and Sunni rebels have occurred and have largely become a focus of John Kerry’s latest peace initiative. However, even in the event of a cessation of violence in Syria, one only has to look at Lebanon’s recent history to see the list of conflicts left in the wake of the Lebanese Civil War.

The list is indeed long: the devastating clashes with Hezbollah and Israel (the 2006 Lebanon War), fighting with Lebanon’s Sunni militant groups, and violence in 2008 between Hezbollah and the Future Movement over Hezbollah’s telecommunication network. This indicates that remaining militias in Syria’s conflict will ensure that sporadic conflict continues long after the political solution is reached.

It is difficult to compare Lebanon’s postwar government to what’s in store for Syria. Lebanon had a stuffy sectarian confessional system with democratic practices. Pre-war Syria was a Stalinist dictatorship with a strong cult of personality. However, ensuring Syria has strong foundations for a post-war government will be essential before any transition to democracy can be attempted.

About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is a Middle East Analyst and works for a U.S. defense consultancy in the Washington DC Metro Area. He has presented at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIL. Chris’ writing has also appeared on NATO's Atlantic Treaty Association, Raddington Report, Small Wars Journal, and Syria Comment. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). You can follow Chris on Twitter @Solomon_Chris