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New Country, New Terrain

By Laura Fawaz, TMO

Destination Lebanon, but this will not be a tour-guide through the beautiful cedars.  Rather, a look into the country often referred to as “the Paris of the middle east,” yet has been through a civil war, has been the target a few times for the many offensives of Israeli, as well as a safe haven for refuges from other neighboring countries. 

This article is the start of a mini series looking into this formation of this peninsula country with the post WWI era and results, France’s heavy influences, and with the many religious sections that never caused divisions until outside sources came in and divided in hopes to conquer.  We will begin with just that; the beginning of the new country, then set the scene of the Lebanese civil war, leading to the emerging political parties and separations in the country, and the region as a whole.  This will also include interviews with people living in Lebanon at the time, as well as Americans who were vacationing there while air strikes were coming in from Israel.  This will all lead to today’s situation, political and otherwise, begging the question, will history repeat itself in this intricately, magnificent, cedar land of Lebanon?New Country, New Terrain

How it all began

To create a country is one thing, but to create a nationality is another.  World War I was an extremely bloody war that engulfed all of Europe from 1914 to 1919, and ended with the destruction of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires.  Therefore making it possible for the winning Allies, France and Britain, to redraw the political map of much of the world.  And with Germany having colonies overseas, in Africa and elsewhere, they were now divided between Britain and France as mandates under license from the newly organized League of Nations; another effect of WWI.  Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire, as a result of its defeat in the war, had virtually ceased to exist.  As for the Arab provinces in historical Mesopotamia and Syria, they were irretrievably lost and consequently divided between Britain and France, with the provision that they must be in preparation as soon as possible for independence. 

But these European allies felt they could ignore national sentiments among the Arab countries as they set out to reorganize them into states, redrawing the political map of the Arab world in the manner that they thought suited them best.  By the spring of 1920, an agreement had been reached between Britain and France on how the former Arab territories of the former Ottoman Empire would be divided.  The principal considerations taken into account were oil and communications, sounds familiar at all?  In 1916, an agreement was negotiated between Britain and France, assigning the Ottoman province, Mesopotamia, Baghdad, and Syria’s Beirut and Damascus.  All with the understanding that the Holy Land of Palestine would have an international status.  During the last months of the war however, the British, who already occupied much of Mesopotamia, took occupation of Palestine, essentially scrapping the Agreement between the two sides.

Britain had made promises during the war to other parties concerning the same area, to Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud, the Wahhabi Emir (prince) of Riyad who was subsequently to become the founder of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the principle national supporter of Wahhabism (a movement of radical Islamic religious revival).  Meanwhile, the British Foreign Office, in close touch with the World Zionist Organization, had by 1917 formally committed itself to viewing the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine.  Naturally, it was impossible for post-war Britain to honor simultaneously all these conflicting commitments fully, but their first priority was to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish Nation.  This was done so and formalized in 1920.

In what was known as Mount Lebanon (the mountains in then southern Syria), the Maronites – a Christian communion with a long tradition of union with the Roman Catholic Church in Europe – were the one party whose demands the French were prepared to listen to.  They knew what they wanted and appeared to be the only ones that did.  As they put it, a ‘Greater Lebanon’ under their paramount control, separate, distinct and independent from the rest of Syria.  According to the Maronite argument, this ‘Greater Lebanon’ had always had a distinctive social and historical character, different from that of its surrounding countries, which made it necessary for France to help establish it as an independent state.  The French government did support their demands, but with reserve.  In Mount Lebanon, the Maronites were the majority of the population, but in a ‘Greater Lebanon’, they were to be outnumbered by the Muslims of the coastal towns.

The Maronites, along with their religious leaders, were insistent in their demands.

And after the war, they pursued this course at the Paris Peace Conference.  On September 1st, 1920, not even four months after the conclusion of the British – French agreement, General Henri Gouraud, from the porch of his official residence as French High Commissioner in Beirut, proclaimed the birth of the State of Greater Lebanon, with Beirut as its capital.  The flag of this new Lebanon was to be none other than the French tricolor itself, with a cedar tree – now hailed as the glorious symbol of the ancient country since Biblical times.  Almost six years later, this State received a Constitution, transforming it into the Lebanese Republic.  Thus the two sister republics came into being, Lebanon and Syria; both under French mandate, sharing the same currency and customs services, but flying different flags, and run by separate native administrations under one French High Commissioner residing in Beirut.

During the war years, the Allies had cheated the Arabs.  The British had promised them national independence on the homelands that have been in their families for decades, but failed to honor that promise.  Instead, they had partitioned this Arab territory with the French, and committed themselves to hand over a particularly precious part of it, Palestine, to the zionists.  So what triggered the civil war in Lebanon?  What specially happened in the next 40 years that caused the entire country to fight each other?  That will be discussed in next week’s issue.


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