Though its current instability is troubling, Lebanon may still provide an example of power sharing in a future Syria. And as refugees from Syria stream into Lebanon, its worth recalling how past movements in the region shaped the present order.
In 1923, some two million refugees crossed the newly erected borders separating the nascent republics of Greece and Turkey. The Anatolian exiles, herded westward toward Greece, were Turkish-speaking Christians dispossessed of their homelands. Their European counterparts, shuffling eastward in the direction of Turkey, were Greek-speaking Muslims. Both groups were alien to their newly assigned homelands; both belonged to the forgotten casualties of post-World War I peace treaties; both were victims of a silent exodus, the earliest instance of “ethnic cleansing” to be consummated in the last début du siècle . This sad history would be replicated many times over elsewhere in Europe, Asia and Africa, throughout the twentieth century.
Notwithstanding the catastrophic humanitarian dimension of such large-scale population movements, the dispatching of Anatolian Christians to an alien Europe, and the expulsion of European Muslims to a Turkey far-removed from their historical experience remained, by comparison, lesser tragedies than the tormented existence of other former Ottoman provinces arrogated the trappings of statehood since 1923. Indeed, the expulsions of Greek-speaking Muslims and Turkish-speaking Christians might have been part of salutary ethnic readjustments, averting future wars and genocides. Had something similar eventuated in the post-Ottoman Levant, perhaps the toils and tribulations of modern-day Syria and Iraq would have been prevented.
But post-World War I British policy in the Middle East had been integrationist; a mindset typical of the way in which the empire has traditionally dealt with all its colonial chattels, from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, to India and North America. Things were no different in the Middle East.
Britain “viewed with favor”—some say even formulated—Sunni Arabism as part of its regional policy, and in line with its vision of a united Arab supra-state. The end product, though by no means the desired unitary Arab state, were smaller entities with a strong Arabist bent, bringing together unsettled patchworks of identities with longstanding ethno-religious apprehensions. This was perhaps the historical error at the heart of the prevailing volatility of today’s Middle East. It also underpins the fears that a number of analysts have recently expressed about Syria’s civil war spreading into neighboring Lebanon.
Although warranted, fears of a spillover from Syria may be exaggerated. Lebanon and Syria do indeed share many historical, geographic, and ethnic commonalities. But there is in their shared history and geography much more that sets them apart than there may be that makes them alike. For one, Lebanon is arguably the Middle East’s only mountainous haven for minority peoples, where Muslims were until very recently numerically inferior. Lebanon is also strikingly different from its neighbors socially, politically and demographically. Besides its inherent character as a mosaic of minorities, Lebanon’s Maronite-Catholics, with their long-standing association with Catholic Europe—primarily France—had a very strong sense of their collective identity, and benefitted since the times of the Crusades from official French protection.
It is precisely this strong connection to France that set Lebanon apart and differentiated its Christians from their co-religionists in other parts of the Ottoman and post-Ottoman Middle East. Even post-Revolutionary anticlerical secular France remained committed to Lebanon and its Maronite community.
But Lebanon’s distinctness is obvious in many other respects. Various local princes, Druze and Christian alike, had striven through five centuries of Ottoman rule to maintain autochthonous, autonomous control over Lebanon, often extending their dominions outwards to the gates of Ottoman Damascus and Palestine. The Egyptian invasion of the Levant in the early nineteenth century was a turning point for the inhabitants of Mount Lebanon, and for the Maronites in particular. The Ottoman viceroys of Egypt attempted to create buffer states between their dominions and Istanbul, as a way of buttressing Egypt’s autonomy and weakening Ottoman authority. As part of this grand plan, the Egyptians disarmed Lebanon’s Druze and empowered the Maronites, prompting the latter to expand their dominions into the Druze heartland. When Egypt withdrew from the Levant in 1845, a struggle for power ensued between France, the Ottomans, and Britain, to fill the vacuum left by the departing Egyptian legions. This resulted in a protracted Maronite-Druze civil war, culminating in the death of some 14,000 Maronites in 1860.
“The Massacres of the Sixties,” as they are recalled in the Maronites’ collective memory, doubled a resolve to establish an independent Maronite state in what Lebanon’s Christians now controlled of Mount Lebanon. Following an international outcry, the French landed an expeditionary force in the summer of 1860 to lend moral and military support to their besieged Maronite protégés, and sought to help them establish an autonomous province. Despite British and Ottoman misgivings, this province, a Mutasarrifiyya, eventuated and became the forerunner of the modern Republic of Lebanon—or the Grand Liban of 1920, which the French would also help bring about on behalf of their Maronite friends.