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Lebanon: Fire and Embers.

WESTERN NATIONS ARE preparing to intervene on a massive scale in Bosnia's intractably complicated civil war. Voices urging caution (many of them pointedly coming from military chiefs) have been drowned out by the chorus of demands that "something must be done" to stop the atrocities in former Yugoslavia. Foreign military involvement will certainly have an effect, though it is as likely to prolong and exacerbate the crisis as to assist in its resolution.

The advocates of intervention would do well to ponder an earlier attempt to establish a military presence in the middle of someone else's civil war, an attempt which was just as worthy in its intentions and just as regardless of the political context and the practical consequences. In 1982, following Israel's invasion of Lebanon, a multinational force made up of US, French, British and Italian contingents was sent to Beirut with an ill-defined peacekeeping mission. It remained until 1984, by which time it had contributed nothing to the resolution of the Lebanese civil war and instead made itself a gratuitous target for terrorist attacks - an outcome which worked neatly to the advantage of Syria's President Assad.

In Lebanon: Fire and Embers, Dilip Hiro comments scathingly on the misguided multinational intervention and the attempts at the same time to impose a new political reality in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion through the futile Lebanese-Israeli peace agreement. The withdrawal of the Western forces and the collapse of the Lebanese-Israeli agreement, he writes, "underlined certain basic geopolitical and historical facts about Lebanon which had been ignored first by the Maronite Christians (in the 19th century), then by France as the mandate power (between the two World Wars), and latterly by Israel and America."

Lebanon, says Hiro, is "an Arab country in more ways than one, with Syria as its most significant neighbor; and the woes of Lebanon can be dissipated only within the larger framework of the Arab world. The Israeli plan to turn Lebanon into a client state governed by the Phalange party only made matters worse. Ignoring Syria was a futile and dangerous policy, as Washington was made to realise by Assad."

Depending on one's point of view, this judgment may be regarded as cynical or simply realistic. The whole story of Lebanon over the past century, Hiro seems to imply, slowly but inexorably points to Syrian domination (as at last formalised in the "Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation and Coordination" signed by the two countries in 1991). Lebanon, like Bosnia-Hercegovina, was always more of a geographical expression than a nation. In one way or another, the odds were stacked in favour of "Greater Syria" and "Greater Serbia" prevailing.

"Greater Lebanon" was the creation of the French mandate authorities after the First World War. By expanding the Christian heartland of Mount Lebanon to include predominantly Muslim areas which had hitherto looked primarily to Damascus for leadership, France sowed the seeds for future conflict. In the words of the Israeli historian, Itamar Rabinovich, quoted by Hiro: "the net effect of the creation of Greater Lebanon was Syrian irredentism and the disruption of the demographic balance in the new state, resulting in discord between the traditional Christian ethos, which underlay its creation, and the heterogeneous composition of its population."

That discord was always evident in independent Lebanon. It erupted into full-scale civil war in 1975 with the armed Palestinian presence as a catalyst, but in retrospect it is hard to escape the conclusion that sooner or later conflict was inevitable and that Syria would seek to establish mastery.

Lebanon: Fire and Embers is a chronological account of the civil war whose major accomplishment is to relate clearly and methodically the bloody sequence of events from 1975 to 1990. Dilip Hiro identifies nine phases of the war, some more destructive than others, some almost peaceful amid the ruins. In the end, there were almost half a million casualties (including 150,000 dead) in a country with a population of only three and a half million.

Hiro's largely descriptive approach eschews opinionated interpretation. There are as many partisan analyses of what happened in Lebanon as there are factional interests. Instead he tries to let the facts speak for themselves. When they beggar comprehension, the point is made. The social and historical causes of Lebanon's fratricide can be identified. The tragic ferocity of its expression is beyond explanation.

With hindsight, it is deceptively easy to see how civil wars like Lebanon's began. Without adequate hindsight, it is far more difficult to understand why they end - if, indeed, Lebanon's trauma has run its course. "Will the current stretch of peace prove just another long lull before a recurring storm," Hiro asks. He thinks not. No domestic group, with or without foreign support, has the stomach to relight the fire. Moreover, he concludes, the political imbalance which gave the Christian minority a majority status in Lebanon has at last been addressed through more equable power-sharing.

Yet even Hiro, putting on a bravely optimistic face, is forced to ask how long the Muslim community, which forms 60% of the total population, can be content with a 50% share of power. Was that the only prize for 15 years of slaughter?

Hiro's narrative ends before last year's parliamentary elections in Lebanon, the first for 20 years. They were boycotted by an embittered Maronite community. Like the Muslims, the Christians are far from reconciled to the present dispensation. Even without a resumption of civil war, it is evident that Lebanon's internecine struggle is far from finished.
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Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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