Lebanon--and Syria
Norman Balabanian
May/June 2005

In press stories about the happenings in Lebanon over the last few months, Syria has universally been pictured as the bad guy. To gain a more nuanced understanding of the situation in that troubled part of the world it would be more helpful to have a modicum of understanding of history. The relevant history starts with the Ottoman Empire that ruled those lands for some 500 year.

The units of the Ottoman Empire were called wilayets, analogous to our states. The Ottoman Empire was allied with Germany in WWI and was dismembered by the victorious allies in the period 1919-21-- mainly Britain, with France playing a supporting role. (Wilson, the US President, was too ill to give it much attention.) How they carved up the former Ottoman Empire to serve their own interest is a fascinating story and forms the background to conflicts still continuing to this day--in Iraq as well as Syria and Lebanon.

Groupings of the Ottoman wilayets went to form the newly created countries. (What Britain patched together to form Iraq, for example, were the wilayets of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. For its own interests, Britain removed a chunk of territory from the wilayet of Mosul and set it up as a separate unit, called the emirate of Kuwait, under its benevolent wing, with devastating consequences that continue to this day.)

The wilayets of Syria and Lebanon were grouped together as a single unit and--under mandate from the League of Nations--handed to France as La République du Syrie et du Grand Liban. It was a single political entity, with no border guards, nor customs, nor travel restrictions between the two. (Stamp collectors will recognize this political unit; its stamps are quite valuable today.)

A year after the start of WWII in 1939, France was overrun by Germany. The resulting Vichy government maintained its control of French territories, including Syria-Lebanon, Algeria, and the states of Indochina. Indeed, when it appeared in 1942 that Germany was using Syria-Lebanon as the equivalent of an aircraft carrier from which its bombers attacked British forces in Iraq, Britain--with token Free French forces--attacked the Vichy forces in Syria-Lebanon in 1942 and sent them packing in 6 weeks. (I was there at the time and traveled often between the Syria and Lebanon parts.)

During that time of a weakened France, nationalist forces in Syria-Lebanon saw an opportunity to get out from under foreign control. Although France regained control of Syria-Lebanon at the end of WWII in 1945, it was not for long. Just as the British were thrown out of Palestine with the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948, so also the French withdrew from Syria-Lebanon, leaving a vacuum. Into this vacuum stepped those with strong interests.

The Lebanon part of Syria-Lebanon has a much more racially and religiously diverse population than the Syria part. Especially the (Roman Catholic) Maronites--who enjoyed behind-the-scenes power during French control of the country--did not want to be made insignificant in a combined Syria-Lebanon, so they worked diligently to pry Lebanon away from Syria into a separate country. The political system in Lebanon, even today, is based on weighted representation by each of the "communities", both racial and religious. This terminology accounts for the divisions, partly by racial grouping, but also by religion. Thus, the Druze--a racial group but a religious one as well--the Alaouites, even the Armenians, have defined representation in the Lebanese legislature.

Syria has a justifiable, historically based, interest in Lebanon. Syrians justly believe that it was a Western power--France--that dismembered the single state, Syria-Lebanon, created by the Versailles treaty after the end of WWI. So, it is easy to appreciate their view that a Syrian military force in Lebanon to protect Syrian interests is justifiable. Whatever they might be forced to do by superior Western forces, they could view to be unjust - with some justification.

The secession of Lebanon from the Syria-Lebanon union in 1947-48 bears a resemblance to the secession of the Southern States from the American union in 1861.The remaining states in our Union fought the Confederate forces for four long years before our Union was re-established. That option was not then available to a weak Syria in the dissolution of the Syria-Lebanon union--nor is it available to it now--against western interests that back Lebanon. Yet history and justice would grant Syria more of a say in the matter than the naked power of the US will tolerate.

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