There’s a very good chance that you are not an expert in Middle Eastern politics, but it’s very likely that you came across the words “Lebanon”, “Saudi Arabia”, “Hezbollah”, or even “multiconfessionalism” in your news feed during November break. And for the past 48 hours maybe you’ve been seeing potential war declarations.
But first, let’s begin with the basics of geopolitics. Lebanon is a country one-third the size of Maryland in the middle of an area traditionally known as the Levant, bordered by Israel in the south, Syria in the east and north, and the Mediterranean Sea in the west (across the water from Cyprus). Until 1918 it was part of the Ottoman Empire, however in 1920 the League of Nations, in a rare feat of actual decision-making, granted its mandate to France because colonialism. Despite the Lebanese Republic, complete with a constitution, being created in 1926, it wasn’t until 1944 when France transferred power to Lebanon’s government; this is where confessionalism comes in. Lebanon boasts the most religiously diverse population in the Middle East, with the government recognizing 18 official sects (the most significant being Shia Islam, Sunni Islam, Maronite Catholic, various sects of the Orthodox Christian Church, Druze, etc.); with the vast majority of the population deeming religion as highly important in their lives, Lebanon’s government chose to reflect this delicate sectarian balance through essentially assigning religions to governmental posts. The President must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies a Shia Muslim; there are also seats allocated according to religions and ethnicities in the Chamber. This system of government is known as multiconfessionalism.
During the Arab-Israeli War Lebanon sided with Palestine, and tens of thousands of Palestinians poured into Lebanon after the war; to this day Lebanon refuses to grant most of these refugees or their descendants equal social status, and many still live in camps. Soon afterwards, Lebanon descended into civil war between various ethnoreligious militias; Syria entered in 1976 to restore peace but was viewed as occupying another sovereign country, and withdrew in 2005. In 1982 Israel launched a full-scale invasion of Lebanon from the south; three years later Israeli troops withdrew, and in 1989 the Lebanese Parliament met in Taif, Saudi Arabia to endorse a Charter of National Reconciliation, mapping out contemporary Lebanon as we know it. The Lebanese Civil War officially ended in 1990, and all militias were forced to dissolve in 1991–except for Hezbollah. A Shia Islamist political, military and social organization operating in Lebanon but backed by Iran, to this day Hezbollah enjoys significant (and to some, growing) power in every aspect of Lebanese life, despite being recognized as a terrorist organization by many around the world (among them Canada, the EU, the United States, and the Gulf states). Lebanon’s current president (and a Maronite Christian), Michel Aoun, is known as being pro-Hezbollah and has repeatedly commented on the “necessity” of its existence, even going so far as saying that Hezbollah’s military might is complementary to the official Lebanese army. The current Saudi-backed Prime Minister (Sunni Muslim), Saad Hariri, is extremely opposed to Hezbollah presence and has accused it of betraying Lebanese interests.
Which brings us to the crisis unfolding in the last few days. Saad Hariri, son of former prime minister Rafik Hariri and holder of both Saudi and Lebanese passports, held talks with Saudi Arabia’ crown prince Mohammed bin Salman on October 30th in Riyadh. 5 days later, in a move that shocked even his closest aides, he resigned from the post of prime minister via a televised address in which he expressed fears for his life and viciously pointed his fingers at Hezbollah and Iran, accusing them of meddling in Arab affairs. This sudden escalation shocked Lebanon, and Michel Aoun has yet to formally accept the resignation (accused by some as unconstitutional), instead calling for Hariri’s return to Lebanon. Hariri then travelled to the UAE, where he remains. Many reports have already branded Hariri a “hostage” and it is widely believed that his movement is restricted by Saudi Arabia. Since then tension has been soaring; on Monday Saudi Arabia said that Lebanon has declared war due to aggression from Hezbollah, and just today Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, accused Saudi Arabia of declaring war on Lebanon and inciting Israel. (It’s important to note that neither Lebanon nor Saudi Arabia officially recognize Israel.)
Now, about why this is worrying. Lebanon has been enjoying something resembling peace for quite a few years before the Syrian Civil War, and with Beirut’s rapid commercial development and huge tourism industry it used to be hailed as a bastion of pluralism in a region mired in sectarian violence. Not so anymore. The country is sharply divided on religious lines, and who Lebanon chooses to side with can topple the delicate balance of the Levant. Its fate is being juggled between two regional powerhouses: the fiercely Sunni Saudi Arabia and the staunchly Shia Iran, while its sizeable Christian population continues to resist Islamist activities in the country. Lebanon has closed its border with Syria due to the overwhelming influx of refugees, and its relationship with Israel continues to be highly hostile; this essentially isolates Lebanon geographically, with its economy severely compromised by the lack of viable trade routes.
There are two important reasons why we should be worried about armed conflict in Lebanon. Firstly, all sides in this conflict possess weapons of mass destruction (including missiles) and can inflict huge casualties with the click of a button. Lebanon is one of the largest hosts of refugees in the world, with one out of four residents being a refugee; this creates a large population of extremely vulnerable people whose lives are completely dependent on peace. Secondly, conflict in Lebanon will not be restricted to Lebanon alone. It’s quite clear that Lebanon is caught in the middle of tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and should armed conflict happen in Lebanon it’s highly likely that these nations will be directly or indirectly involved, which of course can potentially lead to the involvement of their powerful allies. Cue World War III (but that’s worst case scenario).
To the best of this editor’s knowledge no diplomatic leader reads the Mulgrave Gazette, but if you, a common citizen, want to help, here are ways you can be of assistance to the people who may be affected by this ongoing crisis.
- Donate to organizations working for humanitarian relief in Lebanon and beyond; some of the most influential ones include United Nations Development Program, Save the Children, United Nations High Commission on Refugees, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, International Rescue Committee, Médicins Sans Frontières, World Health Organization, Action Against Hunger, as well as various Vancouver-based organizations that sponsor refugees. Your Starbucks order can save a life.
- Communicate to your Member of Parliament that you as a constituent support Canada’s commitment to peace processes and humanitarian efforts in the Middle East. http://pgoldsmithjones.liberal.ca/ http://jwilkinson.liberal.ca/
- Continue to stay informed about global issues; no matter where you stand politically, learning and critical thinking matters and can foster much-needed empathy.