How do nations and peoples cease to exist? Sometimes it is murder, other times suicide, or a combination of the two. It can happen relatively rapidly, such as during the Holocaust and Armenian Genocide, or slowly over decades, through a combination of low intensity violence, political repression, slow pressure, and forced migration. And by nations and peoples, of course, one means a community rooted in a specific place, sharing a particular worldview made up of tangible things like language, religion, folkways, and a physical culture formed by history (or an imagined history) and the natural environment.
There is a place deep in the Lebanese mountains, a thousand meters above sea level and seventy kilometers from Beirut, at Mayfouk, where a monastery was dedicated to Our Lady of Ilige, also known as Our Lady of the Maronites. It was built in the 12th century, supposedly upon the ruins of a pagan Phoenician temple dedicated to the god El or the goddess Astarte. The monastery was built by Maronite Christians when the area was ruled by Crusaders as part of the Crusader County of Tripoli, initially led by an Occitan-speaking noble dynasty from Provence. It became the Maronite patriarchal seat for 320 years. A plaque at the site today records that, in the 14th century, after Crusader rule had ended, the Mamluks sacked the monastery, killed all the monks, and carried off Patriarch Gebrael Hjoula, burning him alive in 1367 in the citadel of Tripoli.
Near that memorial is a large tree, its branches festooned with crucifixes and rosaries, some of them faded with the patina of ages, others still bright in red, yellow, and brown. Close by is a memorial stone cross, of more recent vintage, its base featuring a brass plaque with hundreds of names of martyrs of the Lebanese Christian Resistance, listed according to their affiliation “the Army” or “the Forces” (the former being the LAF—Lebanese Armed Forces, and the latter the LF—the Lebanese Forces militia) who were killed during the Lebanese Civil War of 1975–1990.
The Middle East is filled with potted, imagined histories and glorified pasts. Turkish nationalists invented a fake connection with Anatolian Hittites in order to portray themselves as locals rather than invaders from Central Asia. Saddam Hussein had his name inscribed on bricks for the renovation of ancient Babylon. Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas has claimed that his people are Canaanites, with a history going back 5,000 years. In comparison, Lebanese Maronite claims seem relatively modest—there was a real, if exaggerated, connection with the Crusaders of Outremer, and although a Maronite claim of perpetual Catholic orthodoxy is derided by most scholars, the connection with Rome does go back centuries. And in dreaming of Phoenician and Mardaite warriors, Maronites are hardly the only group to think well of themselves, to idealize their past. Yet they have been repeatedly attacked as “reactionaries” and “fascists” by quite a few modern leftist academics and journalists with a loathing and intensity unmatched to that directed against any Middle East ethnicity other than the Jews.
Maronites in the area that is now Lebanon were distinctive for much of their history—not unique—in that they were of a type seen in other places in the region and elsewhere, mountain peoples who because of their relative isolation and poverty were able to maintain a tenuous semi-independent existence, remnant populations of dissenting or heterodox views in comparison to those of the metropole: the Syriac Christians of the Tur Abdin, the ‘Mountain Nestorians’ of the Hakkari, and Armenians residing in several pockets of Anatolian highlands were other examples. All of them have now been swept away. But this was not limited to Christians, one could point to the Alawites of Syria’s mountainous coast, the Yazidis of Jebel Sinjar, and indeed the Druze of Mount Lebanon—all three heterodox ethno-religious groups often treated as near infidels by the Sunni Muslim rulers of the day.
Canadian-Lebanese writer Nader Moumneh’s 2018 The Lebanese Forces fills a useful niche in that it is a sympathetic and detailed overview of the main Lebanese Christian military-political formation born during the Lebanese Civil War, a formation that became a leading Lebanese nationalist political party after the war ended. It came out at roughly the same time that several autobiographies, of varying quality and veracity, by wartime LF commanders—Joseph Saadeh, Assaad Chaftari, Maroun Machaalani—also appeared in various languages, mostly Arabic and French. Unfortunately, two other interesting LF figures from the period recently died—the fighter turned humanitarian activist Jocelyne Khoueiry (cancer, 2020) and fighter-turned-politician Nazar Najarian (killed in the explosion at Beirut port in August 2020) without leaving their testimonies. Both had a far better reputation for having clean hands than did the bloody Saadeh, Chaftari, and Machaalani. But rather than a telling of tales of heroes or villains—the LF had both in abundance—this is a relatively sanitized, almost officially sanctioned “Samir Geagea” history of the Lebanese Forces (Geagea being the leader of the LF from 1986 to this day, with 11 years of those spent in an underground Lebanese military prison.)
Moumneh’s book is useful, even essential, but it is deeply problematic, and a more passionate, sharper, and shorter work would have made for more compelling reading. One day someone with real insight and the freedom to offend will write a definitive military history of the conflict from the Christian side of the civil war, particularly of the years of Bashir Gemayel (1975–1982) but this is not it. Dr. Walid Phares is correct in the afterword in calling the work “an archivist’s account” and that has utility, but the accounting in the book of the great legends and controversies of those years—1975’s “Black Saturday,” the sieges of Qarantina and Tell Zaatar, the Battle of the Hotels, the massacres at Sabra and Shatila and Ehden and Safra, the Mountain War (where a Geagea-commanded LF was drubbed by Syrian-supported Druze)—is often perfunctory. And while much of the heroism is missing, so is, not surprisingly, much of the seamy and sordid background to a struggle that often seemed to be about personal power and the accumulation of wealth rather than some higher cause.
And once the book passes the death of Bashir Gemayel, the LF’s real founder and an inspirational, if ruthless, warlord with a clear vision, who was assassinated by Syria days after being elected Lebanon’s President, a depressing scenario darkens even further. The next eight years (1982–1990) of the Lebanese Civil War included as much bloody fratricide and gangsterism among the Lebanese Christians themselves as their fighting against the Syrians and their supporting Lebanese and Palestinian militias. Although published in 2018, the book mercifully ends its narrative around 2011, before the 2016 election of former General Michel Aoun, allied with the terrorist group Hezbollah, as President, voted into power with the help of Geagea’s Lebanese Forces parliament members. It was also written before the “historic” (on the scale of the Great Depression) implosion of the Lebanese economy in 2019–2021 and the desperate mass flight of much of its population, especially the Christian element.
This is one of the great ironies of Lebanon’s demolition that as destructive as the civil war was, hope in Lebanon was finally crushed by bankers and politicians rather than warlords (albeit some of the warlords had become politicians). Lebanese money was worth more and there was more to eat when militias were fighting each other in the streets of Beirut 40 years ago than there is today. But the roots of today’s Lebanese disaster, carried out by its kleptocratic ruling class, do go back decades.
Lebanon’s Christian nationalists are right to often point at the 1969 Cairo Accord as a major destabilizing factor. This agreement between the Lebanese government and the Palestinians, overseen by Egypt’s President Nasser, formalized the use of Lebanon by Palestinian fedayeen commandos as a safe haven and launch pad for the armed struggle against Israel. Especially after Jordan’s defeat of Palestinian guerrillas in the ‘Black September’ of 1970, Lebanon became the key battlefront for the Palestinians. Dictators Nasser and Hafiz al-Assad, patrons of the Palestinian struggle, were happy to see PLO guerillas have a freedom and autonomy in tiny Lebanon they would never have allowed the Palestinians to exercise in their own much larger countries. These Palestinian fighters would eventually not only destabilize an already volatile political situation inside Lebanon but also used the country as a training site for foreign fighters. Among them would be the Iranian revolutionary exile Mustafa Chamran, inspired by both Che Guevara and Ruhollah Khomeini, who would be instrumental in setting up the first Lebanese Shia militia, Amal (Chamran would die fighting in the Iran–Iraq War in 1981).
The chain reaction is relatively clear. Lebanon’s loss of sovereignty to Palestinian guerrillas would open the door to Iran and tip the scales in the coming civil war (Lebanon had had a mini-civil war, just among the locals, in 1958), which would lead to direct Syrian military intervention. Assad’s Syrian regime would be a main arbiter of power in Lebanon for 30 years, intervening on the side of the Christians in 1976 and then spending most of the next three decades killing Christians (and any other Lebanese) who inconvenienced them. And it was Syria that brought in Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Chamran’s successors, to create Hezbollah. After Syria was forced out in a popular uprising, it was Hezbollah that would rule, through its Sunni Muslim and Maronite Christian front men.
One wonders if things would have turned out differently if Bashir Gemayel had survived or if his lesser successors had been more skilled politicians and less brutal, venal, and foolish men. Could they have, failing to rule over the entire country, strengthened and solidified the existence of that mostly Christian ‘canton’ they ruled for 15 years by playing a more careful political game in such a dangerous neighborhood? If that opportunity ever existed, in 1989, it fell apart when Aoun and Geagea fought each other inside that canton right before the Syrians swooped in.
Lebanon is a small place. Until recently, was the only Arab state whose Christian population was as a percentage in double digits; it is still a state where, on paper, Christians have an important constitutional role. However, not immediately but soon, it will be a place whose Christian population is marginal, and its political leaders merely a stand-in token of surface diversity, like Iraq’s Christian parliamentarians who are chosen by pro-Iranian Shia Muslim militia/parties. It will become very much like its neighbors. There will be Christian echoes for decades to come but Christian autonomy and decision-making is at the end of its tether. But does such an odd history offer any broader civilizational lessons for us, far away from Lebanon’s shores? I believe it does.
Lebanon’s collapse was a long time in coming and one step towards that was the loss of sovereignty. The Cairo Accord was one part but another was the powerful appeal of transnational ideologies that trumped an appeal to mere Lebanese nationalism—Communism, Nasserist, Arab Baathist and Syrian (SSNP) nationalism, Islamism, and the Iranian Wilayat al-Faqih ideology espoused by Hezbollah, all played a role in subverting the state. We see something of the same phenomenon elsewhere today where ideologies such as Islamism subvert the nation state, but also where globalism does the same in a much more comprehensive and insidious manner.
In addition to a loss of sovereignty and the appeal of anti-national ideologies, there was foreign intervention and a demographic shift. The older, smaller Mount Lebanon entity that existed in the Ottoman Empire from 1861 to 1918 was overwhelmingly Christian and Druze. In 1920, when the borders were expanded by the French to create Le Grand Liban (a move welcomed by some Christian leaders), Christians were just barely a minority and that would erode over time. Lebanon’s non-Christians jostling for greater power would see the veteran fighters of the PLO as the great equalizer, especially during the late sixties and early seventies when the heady scent of revolution was in the air. We see something of this today in Western activists openly-admitted interest in changing the demographic status quo in Europe and the United States. Instead of Lebanon’s Palestinian factions, Western activists see waves of economic migrants from the Global South as their great equalizer to bring about globalist or ‘progressive’ majorities beholden to a presumably brighter future.
All of these political and demographic factors combined with rampant corruption by an entrenched, permanent ruling elite—many of them bought by foreign powers—coupled with the massive Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Lebanon’s Central Bank (orchestrated by the Bank’s governor, Riad Salameh, a Maronite Christian) likely spelled the country’s death knell. While the West may have a way to go to reach Lebanese style levels of corruption, all the signs of an entrenched wealthy elite in power in Brussels and Washington are there to see. In the United States especially, inflation rises while this elite seems to be replicating itself along neo-feudalistic lines, accumulating more power as society becomes more unequal, an eerie echo of Lebanon’s political family elites.
Those hundreds of young men listed on a brass plaque in a Mayfouk churchyard are mercifully spared knowing that their brave sacrifice for the survival of an ancient Eastern Christian people was likely in vain. And that among the many undertakers at the final hour were Maronites: the likes of Salameh, Michel Aoun, and his son-in-law and putative replacement Gibran Bassil. Christian Lebanon’s demise was both suicide and murder.
Alberto M. Fernandez is a former U.S. diplomat and Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in Washington, D.C.