Thursday, April 26, 2012

Lebanese Conflict: Lessons for Iraq

Koshan Ali Khidhir (Zamanee)


The nature of conflicts in Lebanon and Iraq has much in common and it might be useful to compare them, in order to apply some lessons from the post conflict era in Lebanon to Iraq.

Iraq and Lebanon have similar heterogeneous sectarian divisions. For Lebanon, the Shiite, Sunni, and Christians represent the vast majority of the population.

For Iraq, it is the Shiite, Sunni, and Kurds. In Lebanon, the sectarian proportions are more equally divided. However in Iraq, the Shiite have majority having 60% of the population, and the Sunni and Kurds are about 20% each.

In both countries, the Shiite groups encountered suppression by former regimes, but they have power and political participation now. In both cases, the Shiite and Sunni groups were aided for supported by outside forces.

The focus of this essay would be about sectarian strife in both countries, then giving the theoretical framework for the conflicts. In addition, it will be suggested that sharing-power in Lebanon has been affective to normalize relations between different groups; the same method would be compatible for Iraq.

Historical Background of Conflict in Iraq and Lebanon

1- Civil War in Lebanon (1975 - 1990)

Lebanon has a long history with conflicts and wars. The last and the most crucial one would be the civil war that has started in 1975, and lasted for 15 years. The fighting was originally between a largely Maronite Christian force and an alliance of Muslim and left-wing groups, but the conflict soon expanded (Haddad, 2002, p.5).

Furthermore, neighbor states intervened in the conflict. The situation worsened with the presence of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to fight the Palestinian group and to establish an Israel-friendly government there. The plan ended with the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, while he became president. There was presence of Israeli forces in Lebanon until 2000, when they were encountered by the Hizballah. Furthermore, Lebanon was under occupation of Syrian army from 1978 to 2005, following the assassination of Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri (Warren & Troy 2011).

Lebanon is well known to be a harbor for other nations and forces. The Palestinian group has used Lebanon as a base to attack Israel. Israel, Syria, and Iran use Lebanon as a battlefield for their interests and protect their country. There is still proxy war in Lebanon, that neighbor countries have their proxies within Lebanon. For Syria, it was Amal and now Hizballah. For Israel, it was the South Lebanon Army. For Iran, it’s Hizballah (Ibrahim, 1998).

The fighting spread throughout the country, but Beirut, the capital, was particularly devastated. As the war progressed, intra-group fighting emerged, that caused the increasing of the death toll (Warren & Troy 2011).

The 15 years civil war killed an estimated 150,000 people, which is the nearly the same to 5% of Lebanon’s population, until 1990 (Ibrahim, 1998).

2- Sectarian Conflict Following the Invasion of Iraq

On March 20th 2003, the US and British forces invaded Iraq, entering Baghdad in April and capturing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in December. In May, US President George W. Bush claimed an end to the major war effort despite an increasingly fierce urban insurgency (Hinnebusch, 2007, p.7).

The decision of dissolving Iraqi Army in 2003 by Paul Bremer, the top US civilian administrator in Iraq, caused 500,000 men army to be jobless then become terrorists in the region (Hinnebusch, 2007, p.11).

Roadside bombings and suicides became frequent and intense fighting took place during a November Coalition Siege of the rebel stronghold of Fallujah. The influence of other nations, especially Iran, is questionable in Iraq (Dassa, & Wehrey, 2009, p.42). In Iraq, Iran is the most affective and intervening country in Iraqi politics, then Americans, Saudia Arabia and Syria. However, after the withdrawal of Americans, the US will no more have real influence on Iraq. The Shiite groups, that are dominant, have good relations with Iran (Hoffman, 2006).
There are diverse statistics that shows the victims and death toll of the Iraq war and civilian conflicts. A study by American researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health estimated that 100,000 civilian war-related deaths occurred in the 18 months that followed the invasion (Hinnebusch, 2007).

As the sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunni was at its peak the same research study on October 2006 by these researchers estimated the total civilian death toll at 650,000. The war has also claimed the lives of thousands of combatants, including more than 3,000 US troops (Hinnebusch, 2007).

Theoretical Framework for Lebanese and Iraqi Conflicts

The most compatible theory that may give proper analyst to internal conflicts in Lebanon and Iraq would be the theory of “protracted social conflict” by Edward Azar (Tar, 2011).

According to Azar protracted social conflict is “ongoing and seemingly irresolvable” type of conflict. He lays down propositions on protracted social conflict that detail features and characteristics of these conflicts as well as causes, and reasons for recurrence (Ramsbotham, et al. 2011, pp.99-101).

In addition to this, Azar emphasizes that the most useful unit of analysis in protracted social conflict is the identity group- racial, religious, ethnic, cultural, and others (Ramsbotham, et al. 2011, p.101).

This category of conflict is very common in the Third World. Empirical data collected by Azar suggested that 90% of conflicts since the Second World War have taken place within the Third World and have been protracted social-ethnic rather than strategic conflicts (Ramsbotham, et al. 2011, p. 103).

Azar shed light on the importance of the power in the society, that dominant groups exploit it to eliminate the identity of minority groups. In other words, for Azar protracted social conflicts are ideological in nature, with strong preference for secession, national liberation, the rights of self-determination, autonomy or equal rights (Tar, 2011).

Protracted social conflict have two major sources: a deformed and polarized environment, and the denial or lack of basic needs, including security, physical, economic and cultural, identity and recognition (Ramsbotham, et al. 2011, p. 104).

The theory may be implied to the case of Lebanon and Iraq.

In the case of Iraq, sectarian violence emerged when Saddam Hussein came to power 1979. In this case, the violence was unilateral, that mostly state dominant, with Hussein’s Sunni-Baathist government brutally oppressing both Shiite and Kurds over the years.

Nowadays, all different parties have opportunity to express themselves, the different ethnic and religious groups are still learning to coexist. In Iraq, the Shiite and Kurds are weary of the Sunnis, who treated the Kurds so poorly when they were in charge of the country.

In Lebanon, the Sunnis and the Christians were the dominant groups. The levels of oppression and violence against minorities were not so much like in Iraq. This situation reaffirms Azar’s theory, for having protracted social conflict in an atmosphere that there is inequality, and ethnics are forced by dominant power (Tar, 2011).

At the same time the Shiite of Lebanon were marginalized and their people allocating insufficient portion of state resources (Hazran, 2010, p. 7). The basic needs and economic disputes, may be one of the main factors for this kind of conflict, as Azar mentioned (Tar, 2011).

In both cases, there are still tensions between different groups. However, all groups figure out that the best way for stabilization is having cooperation and dialogue. The situation in Lebanon is much better than in Iraq, that Iraq would be able to get some lessons from that country. The following part of the essay suggests a solution for the ethnic and internal conflict in Iraq.

Power-Sharing in Lebanon: lessons for Iraq

Lebanon has long history and experience of power-sharing, and the last effort was the Ta’if Agreement. The agreement and power-sharing would be roadmap for normalization in Iraq.

In 1989, members of the Lebanese Parliament met in Ta’if, Saudi Arabia, to negotiate an end to the civil war. Finally, they reached Ta’if Agreement.

Although the basic power-sharing nature of Lebanon’s institutions remained unchanged, reforms changed the powers of the presidency and council of ministers and the composition of parliament. By 1991 the war had erupted and most parties has agreed to the articles of the Ta’if Agreement (Maila, 1994, p.45).

The conflict parties were not the principal negotiators who arranged the power-sharing arrangement of the post-conflict Lebanese state. Lebanese members of parliament, who had been elected in 1972 and who for the most part had been witnesses and observers rather than actors in the civil war, negotiated the Ta’if Agreement (Maila 1994, 37). The Ta’if Agreement maintained and reaffirmed the broad outlines of the older power-sharing system, but redistributed domestic political power among the major groups, Maronite, Sunni, and Shiite. It shortened the powers of the Maronite President (Harik 1991, 45-56), entrusted most executive powers to the Council of Ministers, and increased the power of the legislature and especially that of the Shiite House Speaker. Ta’if replaced the old 6:5 distribution of seats in Parliament by an equal distribution between Christians and Muslims; it also increased the number of seats in parliament from 99 to 108 and eventually to 128 (Hazran, 2010, p. 12).

The agreement has also clarified the nature of relations between Lebanon and Syria: it stipulated that any agreements between Syria and Lebanon shall “realize the interests of the two filial countries within the framework of the sovereignty and independence of each” (Salem 1991, 71).

In addition, Ta’if called for introducing a number of reforms including administrative decentralization, a new electoral law, reinforcing national integration and identification of education and teaching, the establishment of an economic and social development council, law and regulation of the media, and to re-assert the liberation Lebanon from Israeli occupation (Maila, 1994).

Ta’if sought to change the rule of individuals to the rule of institutions; thus, executive powers were taken away from the presidency and given to the government (Krayem 1997, 426-427). This process needed time to be implemented, President Ilyas Hrawi insisted on attending all meetings of the council of ministries (Mansour 1993, 204-207).

The case of power-sharing in Lebanon could be seen as an example for Iraq. The Iraqi political parties need a practical agreement to distribute the power among different groups and ethnics. The power should be settled, instead of having disputes over power. If the power has distributed, the security and political future of Iraq would be stable (Denselow, 2010).

It may be easier for Lebanon, that proportions of different ethnics are mostly the same, to have the Ta’if Agreement for distribution of power. At the same time, in Iraq the distribution may be made on the base of election results or census. The distribution could be settled among the main parties and groups, in order to have stable political atmosphere.

Nevertheless, the agreement shed light on the relations with neighbor countries and the future of relations, Iraq has to have the same clear position in relations with neighbor countries. It was mentioned that Iran has affect on politics of Iraq, but this has not been regulated through any law or agreement. In addition, Iranian politicians denied these influences. However, clear agreement could restrict the interventions of Iran (Marr, 2004, p.272).

There is one more issue in Iraq, which is dispute over resources. There would be some articles of the agreement for distribution of resources or at least mandating of redistributing of these resources equally among ethnics (Oberg & Strom, 2008).


The cases of Lebanon and Iraq are mostly the same. The comparison between them would be useful to share experiences.

This essay has tried to shed light on the historical background of civil war and internal conflict in Iraq and Lebanon. Then it has mentioned reasons and causes of war. Edward Azar’s Theory of protracted Social Conflict, has been given to analyze and give a framework for the conflicts in Lebanon and Iraq. The theory has been implemented and examples been given to clarify the situation, especially in Iraq.

Finally, the Ta’if Agreement has been elaborated as a successful example for power-sharing. The article suggested having an agreement between all political parties in Iraq, practical distribution of power, and distributing resources among different ethnics. The dominant groups in Iraq should realize the importance of listening to minority groups in order to prevent political discontent and possible future destabilization.


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Koshan Ali Khidhir (Zamanee) is a journalist, blogger, and student at the University of Kurdistan-Hawler. He has written articles for Global Politician, American Chronicle, Middle East Online, Mideast Youth and others. His blog can be read at:

This article has been published on Global Politician: