Cousins in Arms

What Lebanon’s civil war might tell us about Iraq.

Every day, it seems, someone else opines about whether Iraq has descended into civil war. Last weekend, for the first time, a member of the Iraqi government admitted it had. Deputy Interior Minister Hussein Ali Kamal told the BBC Arabic service that “Iraq has been in a state of civil war for the past 12 months,” though he added, “It is not widespread.”

The debate over a definition of “civil war” often seems academic, more a means of determining whether the United States has failed in Iraq than anything else. That the country is caught in a civil conflict of expanding proportions is obvious; mixed religious areas are now zones of confrontation, not integration. But it is equally true that the vast leviathan of war has not fully kicked in, allowing British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to deny, with Jesuitical ingenuity, that a civil war has begun, even while admitting, “It is a high level of slaughter.” Looking at the phases of an earlier Middle Eastern civil war, the one in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, might provide insights into what Iraq is facing and may still face if the situation there degenerates further.

The first lesson from Lebanon is that you don’t necessarily enter civil war according to a specific blueprint. Fighting can erupt when you don’t expect it and last far longer than its original causes justify. When the Lebanese war started in April 1975, the country was not prepared for violence, despite domestic tensions and years of training by paramilitary groups, particularly Christian factions fearful of Palestinian sway over Lebanese affairs. Economically, however, the country was prosperous, and politically its contradictions had an institutional outlet in a relatively democratic parliament. But that was not enough to derail hostilities—indeed, social and economic volatility might have helped feed them as expectations for change surpassed what the system could absorb.

That leads to a second lesson, namely that the outbreak and continuation of civil war need not reflect the will of the majority. As conflict metastasizes, a minority, usually those who are armed, forces compliance on a silent majority gradually more displeased with the ambient chaos. Early on, the combatants seize control of those levers, making the perpetuation of war possible: As the state breaks down, they create their own systems of financing, establish weapons-supply networks, and develop complex organizations, exploiting initial enthusiasm for their endeavors by building self-sustaining entities.

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This underlines one of the paradoxes of the Lebanese war. At the beginning of the conflict, before the militias had set up multifaceted power structures, they could count on greater popular sympathy. Yet later on, as society on either side of the sectarian divide became more fully geared toward war, palpable discontent set in, the war’s initial objectives were forgotten, and militias generated discord to survive. In other words, at the moment of maximal mobilization, many noncombatants had lost most of their illusions about the armed groups.

That’s why a case can be made that, as far as the Lebanese public was concerned, the war could have been satisfactorily terminated in 1976, when Syrian troops entered the country, or in 1982, when Israeli troops invaded and were followed by the deployment of a multinational peacekeeping force. In both cases, however, armed groups, usually backed by regional actors, resumed fighting because they found the status quo intolerable.

Following this, a third lesson is that civil wars often also become proxy battles for neighbors and others, which doesn’t make conflicts any less “civil.” Lebanon’s war, or multiple wars, was variously fought between Lebanese and Lebanese, Lebanese and Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrians, Lebanese and Israelis, Syrians and Palestinians, Syrians and Israelis, Syrians and Americans, and no doubt more. However, almost none of these rounds would have occurred had the Lebanese been united.

Much the same is happening in Iraq, where the United States, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey could be expected to participate more actively than they already are today if all-pervasive fighting breaks out. In 1976, there was a regional and international consensus to grant Syria hegemony over Lebanon to contain the conflict. Lebanon was only momentarily pacified, though for most governments this scheme was preferable to anarchy. In Iraq, the situation is more complex. No single external actor, other than the United States, can pretend to dominate the country, but the American presence will only invite more harassment from the likes of Iran and Syria.

A fourth lesson from Lebanon is that civil war can cease suddenly, without reason, as one side or outside players impose a resolution, either through victory, a political arrangement, or both. Lebanon’s cycle of wars ended in October 1990, when Syria defeated mainly Christian units of the Lebanese army a year after a national reconciliation accord was signed. Almost immediately, the Lebanese began to interact normally, even if psychological rifts remained. By then, the war had lost all meaning for people, and the separation it engendered was viewed as unwarranted.

What does all this mean for Iraq? The fact that a more general conflagration has not broken out still creates opportunities for reducing tension, particularly as all sides plainly dread all-out warfare. Lebanon showed at the end of its war that a combination of regional consensus to end the fighting, the vigorous imposition of outside force to enhance security, and also a political compromise satisfying domestic actors could lead to a broad settlement welcomed by a disgusted public.

But as Lebanon also showed in the long stretch before 1990, these same ingredients that potentially help stabilization, if applied haphazardly, are futile. Beyond a certain stage, civil war frequently takes on a dynamism of its own—frenzy has to be fully outed before tranquility can set in. For the Lebanese, this period took 15 years. One dares not imagine how long the Iraqis would suffer.