The Lebanese Civil War: A Complex & Devastating Conflict

The Lebanese Civil War was characterized by complex issues and an even more complex political and religious landscape.

Jul 11, 2024By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

lebanese civil war conflict


The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) was a complex conflict that drew widespread attention and action from countries around the world. What started as political and religious disagreements between factions turned into a bloody civil war that claimed the lives of up to 150,000 people.


While in Lebanon, the politics often shifted, and groups switched allegiances, outside influence turned Lebanon into a proxy war between the Soviet Union and the United States as they used the country to square off against each other and test the power of their ideologies on a Lebanese population already reeling from the violence.



A destroyed cemetery. Source: Luc Chessex / CICR via Wikimedia Commons


The Lebanese Civil War was a culmination of ethno-religious tension that started over a century before. In 1860, when the area was ruled over by the Ottoman Empire, war erupted between Christian and Druze factions. Massacres, particularly of Christians, took place, and the conflict spilled over into Syria, prompting a French-led intervention to quell the violence.


With the defeat of the Ottomans in World War I, the French took control of the area and gave political support to the Christian Maronite factions. In 1926, the Lebanese Republic was established, and a constitution was adopted in which the country was ruled as a democracy through a parliamentary system. Despite this, the country was not fully independent and existed as part of a mandate controlled by France.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


During the Second World War, Lebanon was occupied by Allied forces and declared full independence in 1943. When the French left in 1946, the Maronites assumed power, but a set quota of parliamentary seats was reserved for Muslims in a bid to placate any religious tensions. By law, the presidency was to be run by a Christian, the Prime Minister was to be a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of Parliament was to be a Shi’ite Muslim.


The demographic dynamic, however, would shift drastically over the next few years as the mandate for the creation of Israel was realized, and Palestinians fled northwards into Lebanon, increasing the Muslim population of the country.


Camille Chamoun. Source: Amazon


These developments created animosity between the religious groups, along with an attempted rebellion in 1958 when the country’s Muslim population tried to force Lebanon to join the United Arab Republic, a state consisting of Egypt and Syria. The president, Camille Chamoun, asked the United States for help, claiming that communists were trying to take over the government.


With the support of the (Christian) Phalange militia, the deadlock was broken. Sweeping aside the roadblocks that had been erected, the Phalange militia secured Chamoun’s authority, as well as more political power for themselves.


War was avoided, but this victory for the Maronite Christians caused further tensions that would erupt later into the civil war that started in 1975.


Chamoun instituted a security apparatus to solidify his control, but it turned out to be corrupt and increasingly brutal, adding to the likelihood of another conflict. To make matters worse, Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) guerillas operated from camps within Lebanon, which drew the attention of the Israelis who led raids into southern Lebanon. In 1968, Israeli forces led a raid into the Beirut airport, which drew international attention.


In 1970, Chamoun lost his grip on power, and an extremist Maronite Christian, Suleiman Franjieh, was elected as the new president. With this development, factions within Lebanon were catapulted to new heights of militarism as they spent the next few years arming themselves and preparing for the inevitable conflict.


The Factions

“For the Arabism of Lebanon,” a poster from the Lebanese Arab Army (part of the Lebanese National Movement), 1975. Source: Ali Kazak Collection / Palestinian Museum Digital Archive


The Lebanese Civil War was a complex web of inter-factional fighting in which various groups joined with other like-minded groups to achieve victory.


One side was characterized by nationalist Christian fundamentalism. This group consisted of the Lebanese Front, a collection of forces including the Phalanges. Allied to them were the South Lebanon Army, Israel, and the Army of Free Lebanon, the latter being a splinter faction of the official Lebanese Army under the control of the government.


The National Liberal Party, established by Camille Chamoun, also had its own military wing of just 500 soldiers, the Tiger Militia, which took part in the war on the side of the Lebanese Front until 1980.


Opposing the nationalists was a pan-Arab Muslim movement that also represented the left wing and received international aid from Iran and North Korea. The core of this movement was the Lebanese National Movement (LNM), a loose collection of leftist and pro-Arab parties and organizations. It was headed by Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt until his assassination in 1977. Leadership then passed down to his son, Walid Jumblatt.


In 1982, the Lebanese National Movement was dissolved and replaced with an underground militia known as Jammoul.


Shi’ite Muslim Amal Movement Militiaman in combat against Druze irregulars. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Syria also got involved in order to suppress the PLO. Thus, Syria began supporting the Maronite militias as well as the Palestinian National Salvation Front, a splinter group of the PLO that accused the PLO of “surrenderism.” Joining this group of belligerents was the Amal movement, a largely Shi’ite organization that was founded to fight for the rights of the Shi’ite Muslims in Lebanon.


Norwegian troops of the UN in Lebanon, 1978. Source: Odd Steinar Tøllefsen / NTB


Meanwhile, the Lebanese Armed Forces, the official army of Lebanon, tried to regain control and were supported at times by the United Nations and peacekeeping forces from the United States, France, and Italy, as well as the Arab Deterrent Force, which was a peacekeeping force made up of Arab states.


The Fighting Begins

Palestinian fighters in the streets of Beirut, 1976. Source: Catherine Leroy


In the spring of 1975, skirmishes between the LNM and the Phalange broke out. Slowly intensifying, the major spark that erupted into war came on April 13 when unidentified gunmen opened fire in a Christian Maronite area of Beirut, killing four people, including two Phalange members. Within hours, the Phalangists had responded, killing 30 Palestinians traveling on a bus. This triggered clashes throughout Beirut and is considered the start of the Lebanese Civil War.


Small arms fire rattled through the districts of Beirut, punctuated by sniper and artillery fire. On December 6, a day later known as Black Friday, the Phalangists set up roadblocks all over Beirut and checked people’s identification for religious affiliation. Many Palestinians and Muslims were executed on the spot.


In early 1976, massacres on both sides led to a mass exodus of both Muslims and Christians who took refuge in areas under Christian and Muslim control, respectively.


On January 22, the Syrians brokered a peace agreement in a bid to bring the PLO back under control and to try and control the sectarian violence. Despite this, the violence continued to escalate, and the Syrians sent in troops.


A Palestinian fighter in 1976. Source: Catherine Leroy


Initially, the Syrians attacked the LNM and Palestinian forces and operated on the same side as the Maronite forces allied with Israel. In August, another massacre happened. Supported by Syria, the Maronites slaughtered over 1,000 civilians in the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp in Beirut.


In September, the PLO attacked and took control of the town of Ashiya and forced the Christian inhabitants to flee. The same month, the Arab Deterrent Force was created, which gave Syria a mandate to keep 40,000 troops in Lebanon, tasked with bringing peace to the country.


As the fighting continued in Beirut, the “Green Line” emerged, separating the Christians in the east from the Muslims in the west. It was so named as it was a static front line in which nobody could live, and as such, nature took over, and plants started to grow in abundance, turning the front line green.


With their primary target being the state of Israel, the PLO in Lebanon launched an increasing number of cross-border raids into the north of the country. With Syria supporting the Christian militias against the PLO, Israel felt safe enough to launch its own invasion in a bid to stamp out the PLO presence in Lebanon.


This sparked the creation and deployment of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to apply pressure on the Israelis to withdraw and to re-establish governmental control over southern Lebanon.


1982 to 1990

Beirut in 1982. Source: James Case / Store Norske Leksikon


One of the most significant and violent episodes of the Lebanese Civil War was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Although the stated goal of the operation was the removal of PLO bases, the Israelis overstepped their initial plans and went as far north as Beirut, besieging the city. The action prompted the peacekeeping forces to broker a deal between the various factions. With the PLO under dire threat in Lebanon, the removal of PLO militias from Lebanon was agreed, along with the relocation of the PLO headquarters to Tunisia. The Syrian forces also agreed to withdraw. Despite this development, many PLO forces remained in Lebanon and continued the fight.


This was not the end of the war, however, as the power vacuum created space for militant groups to take their place. The most prominent of these groups is the Islamist Shi’ite organization Hezbollah, which has grown to monumental proportions.


In the Lebanese government, Bachir Gemayel, the Lebanese militia leader of Kataeb, a Christian militant political entity, was elected president of Lebanon on August 23, 1982. On September 14, he was assassinated, and a reinvigorated wave of violence gripped the country.


IDF troops in Lebanon, 1982. Source: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons / Israeli Defence Forces Spokesperson’s Unit


From September 16 to 18, at the Shatila refugee camp and the neighboring Sabra area, Phalangists, supported by the Israeli Defense Force, massacred thousands of Palestinians.


Despite the violent nature of the Israeli presence, IDF troop presence created a buffer between several of the militant groups at war with each other, so when the IDF withdrew their forces from the Chouf area south of Beirut, the Druze militias moved in and used the opportunity to attack the Maronite militias in what became known as the Mountain War.


In Western media, the conflict would focus on the suicide attacks and bombings that would take place in 1983 and 1984 against US and Western interests. The death of hundreds of American and French service members caused both countries to withdraw their forces in 1984.


Victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, 1982. Source: Ryuichi Hirokawa / the Ali Kazak Collection / Palestinian Museum Digital Archive


By 1985, the Israeli forces had completely withdrawn. With the complete collapse of Lebanese government control, the country became ruled by militia factions that exerted control over the areas in which they had a presence.


By 1988, the government itself plummeted into chaos, and two opposing governments emerged, each claiming to be the official government of Lebanon.


In 1989, Morocco, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia managed to broker a ceasefire agreement. This would develop into a permanent end to the war, as members of the parliament elected in 1972 met to hammer out an agreement on the makeup of the new government. The new agreement was done to reflect and represent the ethnic and religious demographics of the country in what became known as the Ṭāʾif Accord. Syrian forces would remain in the country for two years to ensure a smooth transition of power and peace on the ground.


Elias Hrawi, the president who led Lebanon into an era of relative peace. Source: Store Norske Leksikon


The last vestiges of violence were at the whim of Michel Aoun, a general in the Lebanese Army who had been dismissed in November 1988. He was able to retain significant loyalty from what remained of the government forces and launched his own war against the rival Lebanese Front.


Aoun’s attempts to assert control came to an end in October 1990 when Syrian forces launched a significant ground and air assault against his troops. Aoun was forced into exile.


The new government, led by the Christian Maronite Elias Hrawi, consisted of militia leaders from the various factions. This ensured all the political viewpoints were represented in the country.


Once the government had been assembled, Hrawi embarked on the difficult task of extending government control throughout Lebanon and reaching points of conciliation with the opposing factions.


Flag of Lebanon. Source:


The Lebanese Civil War lasted for 15 years and claimed the lives of between 120,000 and 150,000 people. Despite the immense complexity of the violence and the seemingly never-ending factors being thrown into the vortex, peace was achieved through a concerted effort and supported by neighboring countries who wished to see an end to the violence.

Author Image

By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.