Beware of Small States

Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East


By David Hirst

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In this magisterial history of Lebanon, from the end of Ottoman rule to the Hezbollah and Hamas wars of today, acclaimed and fiercely independent Middle East journalist and historian David Hirst charts the interplay between a uniquely complex country and the broader struggles of the modern Middle East. Lebanon is the battleground on which the region’s greater states pursue their strategic, political, and ideological conflicts–conflicts that sometimes escalate into full-scale proxy wars. Hirst warns that only serious diplomatic action from the Obama administration can prevent the next such action from engulfing the entire region.



The Seeds of Conflict



Lebanon, a mountainous country on the Eastern Mediterranean no bigger than Wales or the American state of Connecticut, has long attracted an international attention disproportionate to its size and, one might at first think, its importance. The attention has generally come in dramatic spasms provoked by crises apt to subside as quickly as they erupt, but whose underlying causes never go away. Rarely, however, did it reach such a pitch of sustained intensity as during the event that inspired the writing of this history – those thirty-three days in July and August 2006, which Arabs have called the 'Sixth [Arab–Israeli] War'. And rarely have pundits and partisans ascribed such great, such well-nigh cosmic significance to a war that was limited in scope and, in any immediate military sense at least, inconclusive in its outcome.

On the one hand, so passionate a devotee of Israel as the controversial American celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz could say that it was 'the first major battle of a third world war between terrorist armies and democracies, the first instance since the Holocaust in which Jews, as Jews, are targeted by an international organization that seeks recognition as a legitimate power, by Islamic extremists who want to "liberate" all Islamic land, which includes all of Israel proper, including Tel Aviv, from the "crusaders."'1 On the other, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Dershowitz's polar opposite and chief sponsor of Hizbullah, found it richly meaningful too. 'Those people and groups,' said the newspaper Kayhan, 'who are trying to scare Tehran out of its support for the Lebanese people, Hizbullah and Hamas, are like a little kid who is trying to create a big wave in the ocean by throwing a small stone into it. The evil triangle of America, Israel and reactionary Arabs has been defeated in the four weeks since the crisis began, and this triangle will cease to exist in the Middle East that lies ahead.'2

Pronouncements of the kind did at least, in their very grandiloquence, serve to dramatize what had long established itself as Lebanon's pre-eminent role in the world. 'Beware of small states', wrote Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist, to a friend in 1870. What he meant, in that era of European war and geopolitical upheaval, was not only that such diminutive polities were peculiarly vulnerable to the machinations of greater ones, but that they were a source of trouble for their tormentors too.3 He had in mind Belgium, for example, or Latvia, trapped on the Baltic between the rival ambitions of Czarist Russia and a Germany undergoing its unification and aggrandizement at the hand of Prussia and its Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. Lebanon, by this geopolitical criterion, undoubtedly qualifies as the 'small state' of the Middle East. Not for nothing have its ancient, biblical name, and that of its capital, Beirut, now entered the world's political vocabulary as bywords for a certain type of modern conflict. Not for nothing has the term libanisation ('Lebanonization') become an official part of the French language, defined in the latest editions of Larousse as 'a process of fragmentation of a state, as a result of confrontation between diverse communities', and 'tending to replace "balkanisation"'.

But it is not simply Lebanon's small size, sensitive location between East and West, or the special interest European powers have always taken in this largely Christian country, which accounts for its susceptibility to outside interference. It is, above all, its unique internal composition. For as an amalgam of religious communities and their myriad sub-divisions, with a constitutional and political order to match, Lebanon is the sectarian state par excellence. The condition from which it suffers is chronic; or, at the very least, it is surely bound to endure so long as the whole Middle East also remains what it is: the most endemically unstable region in the world. Lebanon, it seems, was almost designed to be the everlasting battleground for others' political, strategic and ideological conflicts, conflicts which sometimes escalate into their proxy wars. These others are first and foremost, of course, the larger states of the region. But they are also America, Europe, Russia, or any great power, actual or aspiring, that takes an interest in the region's affairs. And great powers always have taken such an interest, on account of its importance, historically, as a hub of international politics, and, in recent times, as the repository of vast reserves of oil, life-blood of the modern world, and the locus of its longest-running, most implacable and dangerous conflict, the struggle between Arab and Jew. If the Middle East habitually interferes in Lebanon's affairs, the outside world habitually does so in those of the Middle East.

Nor is it just states, and their official agencies, to whose designs, public or clandestine, Lebanon is uniquely exposed. It is no less exposed, at the popular level, to every new idea or ideology, every religious, political or cultural current that arises and spreads across the region. That is because it is, and always has been, a more open, liberal and democratic society than any of its Arab neighbours. In this respect, its vulnerability to domestic dissension, its chief flaw, has become, as it were, its chief of virtues. For the sectarian state just could not function at all unless its constituent parts agreed, at least in principle, that respecting the rights, interests and sensibilities of each was indispensable to the welfare of all. That amounted to a built-in prophylactic against the dictatorship of one group, usually ethnic or sectarian, over others that has blighted the rest of the Arab world.

So, although Lebanon has undoubtedly been the object and victim of others' actions and ambitions, on the plane of ideas it has not only been an object, but an agent too. Thus, in its own, idiosyncratic and, of course, frequently sectarian way, it has been a reflector of, or major contributor to, all the broad historical experiences of the modern Middle East: the transition from Ottoman Turkish rule to European colonial domination; the rise of the pan-Arab nationalist idea and the advent of independence; the post-independence, revolutionary seizures of power – in all their variously secular, socialist, unionist, 'anti-imperialist' guises – which, with President Nasser as their great champion, the nationalist idea spawned; and finally, with the failure of nationalism, or at least of the decadent regimes that presumed to embody it, the rise of the fundamentalist Islam which is pre-eminent today. Indeed, could it even be said that Lebanon – the eternal victim – has now become the perpetrator too, posing no less a threat to greater states than they habitually posed to it? Was it mere braggadocio, or was it a serious, credible proposition that Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbullah leader, advanced in his first public appearance after 'the divine victory' which God had bestowed on his jihadist warriors – the proposition that the 'small state' of the Middle East had now been transformed into one of its 'great powers'?4 His enraptured followers clearly thought so. And could anyone, amid the shocks and tumult of the times, confidently pronounce them wrong?

Several states, from inside the region and beyond, have impinged on Lebanon – wooed, bullied or sought to subvert it from within, attacked, invaded, occupied or otherwise maltreated it – in its nearly ninety-year existence in its modern form. But none has done so more strenuously and disruptively than the state of Israel – or, to be more precise, Israel preceded by the pre-state Zionist movement out of which it grew. For, however familiar the existence and characteristic activities of the Jewish state may now have come to seem in the eyes of the world, it is an historically remarkable fact that when Lebanon as we know it first arose, in 1920, no such thing existed. Not only was there no Jewish state, there were not even the basic prerequisites of one – a distinct and recognized people inhabiting a distinct and recognized territory of its own – as there had been prior to the formation of the smaller nation-states of Europe. Latvia, for example, finally achieved statehood after the First World War, upon the dissolution of the last of the successive empires within which it had hitherto been subsumed. In Palestine, where Israel eventually did arise, there was only a very small community of Jews, no more than six per cent of the total population, owning no more than two per cent of the land.5 Of those only a minority, natives born and bred, were as truly indigenous as the Arabs among whom they lived; the majority were recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. Nor did these immigrants possess any conceivable right, under international law or custom, to create an exclusively Jewish state, or any reasonable expectation that they ever could, given the seemingly insuperable obstacles which stood in their path, not just legal ones of course, but moral, diplomatic, political and demographic too. Yet not only did they achieve that – mainly, and inevitably, through force – within the space of thirty years, they eventually turned their state, militarily and diplomatically, into the most powerful in the region. No less inevitably, given the manner of its birth, this new-born state was from the outset predisposed to use its power in an aggressive, domineering and violent fashion. That was to be felt throughout the region, but – after Palestine itself – nowhere more than it was by the smallest and weakest of its neighbours, Lebanon. And when one speaks of Israeli power, one cannot but speak of the Western power that was always integral to it. In its embryonic, pre-state days, the Zionist enterprise in Palestine was utterly dependent on Great Britain, the dominant imperial state of the age, which had sponsored it. But even now, the regional superpower into which it eventually grew remains no less dependent for its ultimate survival on the global superpower, or, rather, on its unique ability – directly or via the 'friends of Israel' inside the US itself – to enlist American power on its own behalf.


Modern Lebanon, like Latvia, was born out of the cataclysm of the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire, the 'Sick Man of Europe', finally expired. It was a part of the new Middle Eastern order which Britain and France, the war's victors, imposed on the empire's former Arab provinces.

That order represented a betrayal of the Arab peoples – of their hopes and expectations for a renewal of mastery in their own house which had not been theirs for centuries. The last time it had been, they ranked for a while as a standard-bearer of human progress. That was when, with Europe still sunk in the Dark Ages, they created a brilliant civilization inextricably associated with the religion, Islam, which their Prophet, Muhammad, had founded. From Damascus, seat of the first, Omayyad Caliphate, they carried it in an extraordinary succession of imperial conquests to India in the east, while their westerly advance, through North Africa and Spain, was only checked, beyond the Pyrenees, by the Frankish chief, Charles Martel, in the battle of Tours in 732. Other peoples shared in this enterprise, but it was the original Arab conquerors who, as its ruling class, bound the vast empire together. In time, however, their unifying ascendancy crumbled beneath a combination of internal convulsions and external challenges, and eventually the empire's Arabian heartlands themselves fell prey to foreign, albeit – Crusader kingdoms apart – Muslim rulers. During the four hundred years that the last of them, the Ottomans, held sway, the Arab decline accelerated disastrously in relation to a European Christendom forging triumphantly ahead in all fields of human endeavour. It was in response to Europe's supremacy, and its invasion or outright annexation of parts of the Arab homeland, that in the later years of the nineteenth century Arab thinkers began to reflect on the reasons why their once pre-eminent civilization had fallen so far behind. They studied and sought to profit not only from those most obvious and outwardly impressive manifestations of Europe's progress – its scientific and technological achievements – but from those larger, less tangible concepts – the nation state, constitutional government, individual liberties, secularism, democracy – that underlay them. At first it had been primarily as Muslims that they reacted. But by the turn of the twentieth century, in a movement known as the Arab Awakening – a great debate about Arab identity, history, language, culture, religion – they tended more and more to look upon themselves primarily as Arabs. The central idea was that of nationhood. There was an Arab nation; however diverse its component parts might be, these had certain basic aspirations in common. The more closely each worked with the other the stronger all would be.

In 1915, early in the war, Britain effectively acknowledged the force and justice of the pan-Arab nationalist ideal when it solemnly pledged its support for a free, sovereign and potentially united Arab state encompassing all, or at least the vast bulk, of those liberated Ottoman provinces. It had entered into a protracted correspondence with Sherif Hussein of Mecca, the Ottoman-appointed governor of the province of Hijaz in what is now Saudi Arabia. Long bent on the establishment of an independent Arab kingdom, with himself and his Hashemite dynasty at its head, he was the most representative spokesman of the Arab cause. In return for his collaboration with the Allies in their military campaign against the Ottomans, Britain undertook to 'recognize and support the independence of the Arabs' in all their domains except for 'portions of Syria [i.e. principally Lebanon] lying to the west of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo that could not be said to be purely Arab'. The Sherif did not agree to this exception – which Britain had introduced in deference to France – reserving the right to contest it later.

In fulfilment of their part of the bargain, the Sherif and his sons, the amirs Faisal and Abdullah, launched the Arab Revolt. Its climax came with the capture of Damascus in 1918. That historic city should then have become, for the first time in more than a thousand years, the capital of the 'Arab Kingdom' which he proclaimed there. But this was not to be – or at least not for more than a few weeks. French troops marched from Lebanon – where Faisal had already surrendered an even briefer, week-long tenure6 – defeated his army, and added Damascus and the whole of Syria to France's existing array of colonial possessions.

It did so with British connivance. For, six months after its negotiations with Sherif Hussein, the British government had concluded a secret understanding between itself, France and Czarist Russia. This, the Sykes–Picot agreement, was one of the two key documents that shaped the modern history of the Middle East. Under its terms, made public in 1917, to the Arabs' immense consternation, by the newly installed Bolshevik government, Russia and Italy were to take control of essentially Turkish parts of the former Ottoman domains, while France and Britain were to divide the Arab provinces between them, with Syria and Lebanon going to France, and Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan to Britain.

It was unrepentant, old-fashioned imperialism. But it was dressed up in philanthropic guise. Britain and France were obliged to pay lip-service of sorts to the principles which, with its promises to the Arabs, Britain had effectively endorsed. They did so in the shape of the so-called Mandates. According to these, assigned to them as 'a sacred trust of civilization' by the League of Nations, their charges had formally speaking become 'independent states'; at the same time, however, they were 'subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory until such time as they [were] able to stand alone'.

The newly subordinate Arabs owed this at least ostensible concession to the United States. Declaring war on Germany in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson had called for a post-war world 'made safe for democracy'; and in his Fourteen Points, enunciated in January 1918, he decreed that this post-war world should also be an anti-colonial one which banished 'force' and 'aggression' from the affairs of nations, replacing them with 'self-determination', 'justice', 'fair dealing' and 'open covenants openly arrived at'. As for the Middle East itself, its peoples should be 'assured of undoubted security of life and absolutely unmolested opportunity of development'. At the Versailles peace conference in 1919, Wilson refused even to consider the secret wartime agreements of the European powers. Furthermore, in response to pleas that came, most forcefully, from fellow Americans resident in the Middle East – such as Daniel Bliss, president of the American University of Beirut – he resolved that the conference should dispatch a mission of inquiry to ascertain the true desire of the people 'directly concerned', the Arabs themselves. The 'King– Crane Commission', as it came to be known after the names of its exclusively American participants, found that what the Arabs almost unanimously desired was full independence. The inhabitants of Syria – and Palestine, then considered to be a part of it – insisted on a sovereign and united state embracing not only the whole of what is now the state of Syria, but Lebanon, Palestine and Transjordan too. The Commission also determined that if these people really needed a period of foreign tutelage at all 'the Mandate should certainly go to America'. But then Wilson, losing interest, left the field to the recalcitrant Europeans.


Under Sykes–Picot France was entitled to set up whatever kind of administration, 'direct or indirect', it saw fit in those Mediterranean coastal regions which Britain had sought to exclude from an 'Arab Kingdom'. It proceeded with the creation of Greater Lebanon, so called because, though still a small state, it was very substantially larger than the historical entity, Mount Lebanon, out of which it grew.

Under the Ottomans, these rugged highlands had long enjoyed a special, autonomous status as the ancestral home of two religious communities, the Maronite Christians and the Druzes. In search of a refuge from Muslim conquests, the Maronites, offspring of the early Church's Monothelite controversy as to the dual or single nature of Christ, first established a foothold there in the seventh century. They drew close to Catholic Europe during the Crusades and entered into full union with Rome in 1736. They developed a very special relationship with their so-called 'tender mother', France. The Druzes, an esoteric, sub-Shiite sect, took root there in the eleventh century.

The two communities fluctuated between cooperation and bitter conflict. But in the nineteenth century relations between them became inextricably entwined with Mount Lebanon's emergence, adumbrating the 'small state' role to come, as the focal point of both regional and international competition – between an Ottoman Empire striving to pre serve a grip on its restive province, an Egypt which had invaded it, a France backing the Maronites, and Britain the Druzes. 'If one man hits another,' a local chieftain complained, 'the incident becomes an Anglo-French affair, and there might even be trouble between the two countries if a cup of coffee gets spilt on the ground.'7 Civil war came to a head in 1860, when the Druzes inflicted horrible massacres on the Maronites. It ended with French military intervention on the Maronites' behalf and the creation of a new autonomous order under European protection.

Despite their defeat, however, the Maronites emerged stronger than the Druzes. They had long been gaining ground demographically, territorially, educationally and economically, and now they secured a clear political primacy too. Under the new order, and the stability, prosperity and self-confidence that came with it, they developed the larger communal ambitions that were to come to fruition with the formation of Greater Lebanon.

The Christians of Mount Lebanon, of Beirut and coastal regions then part of Syria had played a dominant and pioneering role in the intellectual ferment of the Arab Awakening. They owed that very largely to their long-standing association with the West, and to seats of learning, such as the American University of Beirut, which missionaries and philanthropists, both European and American, had established among them. They had thereby contributed much to the growth of the pan-Arab nationalist idea. Ironically, however, that idea was now about to collide with a more local nationalism of their own. At first, when the imperial Turk had been perceived, by Muslims and Christians alike, as the common adversary, this had only been latent within the larger pan-Arab one. But with the prospect of liberation from the Ottomans improving, and Arab nationalism seemingly never quite able to shed its Islamic character in favour of a truly secular one, it took a more concrete and assertive form. It was essentially Maronite nationalism in Lebanese guise. Its roots lay in the Maronites' historical fear of, and antipathy for, Islam, in their self-perception as an embattled outpost of Christendom, the largest, most compact and pugnacious in the Middle East, which, secure in its mountain fastnesses, had never submitted to the officially protected, but subordinate, so-called dhimmi status endured by Greek Orthodox and other Christian denominations, as scattered islands in a Muslim sea. Lebanon, in their estimation, was essentially 'their' country. Indeed, according to a mythology clerics and ideologues promoted, they were not really Arabs at all.8 They were heirs to the Phoenicians, the merchant, sea-faring nation of antiquity; they were a Mediterranean people, honorary Europeans, with Rome as their spiritual Mecca, Paris their cultural one.9 Whereas the Arab nationalists wanted to absorb Lebanon into a greater Arab state, they wanted a small and separate one, with themselves in charge. And with French help they got it.

The state which France conjured into being in August 1920 more than doubled the dimensions of Mount Lebanon with the annexation of the coastal cities of Beirut, Tyre, Sidon and Tripoli, as well as the Beqa'a valley in the interior. This, for the Maronites, was the restoration of the 'historic frontiers', well beyond the Mountain, to which the writ of powerful (though mostly non-Christian) rulers had once in practice run. The Maronite patriarch, exercising temporal as well as spiritual authority, was the leading champion of this expansionist dream come true. Economic as well as ideological motives lay behind it: only with the addition of the Mediterranean ports, vital for commerce, and the fertile inland plain, ensuring a measure of self-sufficiency in agriculture, could their new Lebanon be a truly viable one. The trouble with this arrangement was that the new territories, thus arbitrarily acquired, were actually Syrian, and, though they included scattered Maronite communities, their great majority, mainly Muslim, considered themselves Syrian too; they mostly identified with the pan-Arab nationalism of which Syria was the heart. For the orthodox, largely city-dwelling Sunnis, members of the Arab nation's largest religious community and its traditional ruling class, the prospect of subordination by local Christians was if anything worse than European colonialism; an 'almost unimaginable inversion of the natural order in their world'.10

For the Maronites were resolved to perpetuate the dominance, over this Greater Lebanon, which they formerly exerted over the lesser one of the Mountain. For a variety of reasons, they believed they could manage that. In a country of well under a million people they still constituted the largest single community, if no longer the absolute majority they had been; twelve years later, according to the only official census ever conducted, they numbered 351,197, or 33.57 per cent out of a total population of 1,046,164.11 They were also relatively well-educated, prosperous, and persuaded of the inherent superiority of their Westernized ways. Their beloved France, for colonial reasons, stood four-square behind them. With Lebanon's independence in 1943, their ascendancy was formally consecrated in the so-called National Pact. This unwritten agreement enshrined an historic compromise: the Maronites, recognizing Lebanon's Arab character and membership of the Arab family, agreed to renounce any protective links to European powers and the Muslims, acknowledging the finality of its independent statehood, shed their pan-Arab nationalist dream of re-integration into the Syria from which they had been severed. The Pact also presumed to regulate the share and status of every religious community in the whole. There were a full seventeen of these; they were all crammed cheek by jowl into the narrow confines, some 200 kilometres long by 80 broad, of the multi-confessional state, all more or less identified with their own particular, yet rarely homogeneous, segment – be it a precipitous mountain domain or a compact city quarter – in the crazy patchwork of separate entities that was its territorial expression. The Maronites, taking the presidency, command of the army and other key posts, came out firmly at the apex of the hierarchy. The Sunnis, numbering 194,305, or 18.57 per cent of the population, at the time of the 1932 census, took the premiership. The least favoured were the 166,545 Shiites, at 15.92 per cent.12

Once upon a time, back in the tenth century, when Shiite dynasties still ruled most of the Middle East and North Africa, they had been dominant, possibly even the majority, in the territories now part of the new-born Lebanese state. But, oppressed and persecuted under orthodox Sunni Mamluks and Ottomans, they were driven out of the Tripoli region of northern Lebanon. With the rise and expansion of the Maronites and Druzes, they were then driven from Mount Lebanon, until, apart from a pocket here and there, they were territorially reduced to Jebel Amil – the hill country inland from Tyre and Sidon – and part of the Beqa'a Valley, with which they are immemorially associated. In 1919, loyal to Syria and Amir Faisal, and suspicious of a French-ruled, Maronite-dominated Lebanon, they were attacked by French troops, assisted by local Maronites, who constituted the second, if very much smaller community of Jebel Amil. Their towns and villages came under artillery and aerial bombardment. They formally submitted to the new order with the enforced signature, by their notables and ulema (religious leaders), of an admission of responsibility for their own plight.13


On Sale
Mar 8, 2011
Page Count
496 pages
Bold Type Books

David Hirst

About the Author

David Hirst was for many years the Middle East correspondent of the Guardian. His seminal book on the Arab-Israeli conflict, The Gun and the Olive Branch, has been in print for thirty years.

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