The sad and cautionary tale of Lebanon

Dan Perry
6 min readNov 22, 2023

Its independence day today is no celebration because Hezbollah, a tool of fanatics in Iran, could bring catastrophe upon the “Paris of the Middle East.” It’s all because of a century-old mistake.

Photo by Charbel Karam via Unsplash

There once was a non-Muslim ethnic group in the Middle East that could have formed its own small country with a solid majority and a Western-leaning culture. But it got a little greedy and opted for a slightly larger territory — where its majority was gone. The group’s leadership figured that the Muslim groups in the new hodgepodge could be kept at bay through various machinations.

That may sound a lot like the Israeli Jews, who are these days discovering anew the challenges of ethnic cohabitation in the Middle East. But I’m talking about Lebanon’s Maronite Christians, whose great tragedy was that a mind virus known as “Greater Lebanon” took hold of them as the powers were dividing up the defeated Ottomon Empire after World War I.

That mistake created Lebanon, which marks the 80th anniversary of its version of independence today, on Nov. 22. But it is not a celebration, for Lebanon is right now, as I write, at the mercy of a Shiite Muslim terrorist militia known as Hezbollah, which is armed and funded by the ayatollahs of Iran. Those criminals are weighing whether it might be a good idea to attack Israel, a neighboring nuclear power that they have already chosen to menace with perhaps 150,000 rockets pointing south.

As we know, Israel is currently fighting what looks like a war to the finish with Hamas, another Iranian proxy in the region, which in 2007 hijacked the Gaza Strip and its 2 million unfortunate Palestinians. Hamas saw fit to invade Israel and massacre 1,400 people, including babies burned in their cribs, on Oct. 7. Israel doesn’t need a second front any more than Napoleon Bonaparte did after the French Revolution, and so it is doing its best to deter Hezbollah.

I feel confident in proclaiming that Israelis do not covet any part of Lebanon nor harbor ill will toward its people. But Israeli leaders have made clear that if Hezbollah attacks, the damage to Lebanon, largely via airstrikes to degrade and destroy Hezbollah, will be enormous. Past rounds suggest the threat is credible, because Israel, while clever enough at times, has not figured out a more delicate way. Nor has any third party that I know of.

Indeed, that is what occurred in 2006, the last time Hezbollah decided to provoke Israel. The result was a one-month war in which over 1,000 were killed in Lebanon (perhaps half from Hezbollah) and considerable infrastructure damage was caused, and in which 165 Israelis, most of them soldiers, died as well. Since then Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has kept mostly out of public view, reportedly in a bunker, which is a word that seems appropriate.

Instead, the group focused on ammassing political power via patronage in Lebanon and assisting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in his apparently successful effort to cling to power despite gassing his own people and presiding over the deaths of a half million Syrians and the displacement of perhaps half his total population. Of those refugees, about 1.5 million ended up in Lebanon, and more are arriving still — just one of the reasons for Lebanon’s economic crisis, featuring hyperinflation of over 200 percent a year.

Inspired by Hamas and probably egged on by Iran, Hezbollah has been poking Israel in the eye for the past several weeks, with artillery fire and sniper attacks and shelling that have killed several people and caused the evacuation of much of Israel’s north. Where will it go?

Lebanon’s government has been beseeching Hezbollah to stay out of the fray. In less abnormal times, this government is led by a rather powerless “president,” who by traditional arrangement is a Christian. But Lebanon’ has been without a president for a year, because the parliament cannot agree on one — so great are the tensions and corruption. Meanwhile a petition against Lebanese involvement has been signed by almost 10,000 people brave enough to criticize Hezbollah publicly. They, along with Israelis, eagerly await decisions from Nasrallah.

How did Lebanon arrive at such a state and such a juncture? It is worth examining, for the sad story of the Maronite Christians contains within it lessons for us all.

The Maronites trace their origins to other groups in the Levant, including the Phoenicians and Hellenized Semites, the first of whom were evangelized in the earliest years of Christianity. For many centuries now they have been recognized as a distinct ethno-religious group living in Mount Lebanon, which is a range overlooking Beirut and other towns along the eastern Mediterranean Coast. The Muslim-Arab invasion of the 7th century left the coastline largely alone, as the newcomers were not seafaring and preferred the more inland Bekaa valley.

Despite devastating warfare in the 19th century with the area’s Druze, the Maronites constituted a clear majority in this area, and in 1861, under European pressure, were awarded an autonomous Ottoman subdivision called the “mutasarrif.”

After World War I, when the victorious Allied powers were dividing up the Ottoman empire’s spoils, the French received the area that would become today’s Syria and Lebanon. A clear possibility was creating an embryonic state for the Maronites from the same Ottoman subdivision. But the Maronite leadership preferred to expand it inland and south, under the slogan “Grand Liban” (“Greater Lebanon” in French). The Maronites would lose their strong majority, but believed a larger country would be better, partly due to cheap Muslim labor.

The 1919 Paris Peace conference is mostly remembered for the Treaty of Versailles, which in imposing humiliating conditions on defeated Germany helped give rise to the Nazis. But another great calamity to emerge there was the Maronites’, by their own hand.

The French received a League of Nations “mandate” over Syria and “Greater” Lebanon, which evaporated a few decades later, in the wake of World War II. Both countries were a tangle of ethnicities. The antipathy in Syria between the dominant minority Alawites and everyone else — Druze, Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis, Assyrians — has become quite clear in that country’s recent calamitous civil war. Lebanon’s disintegration preceded it.

The Maronites thought they could dominate the country by being generally wealthier, better educated, more connected through commerce and via a Francophilic culture with Europe, and local arrangments like being guaranteed the position of president. None of that worked out.

A civil war erupted in 1975 that was to last 15 years and further decimate the ranks of the Maronites, as their wealth and connections compelled emigration. The Maronites are now perhaps a quarter of the 5 million population (with other groups, Christians form about a third). Some 3 million of them live in Brazil and over a million in the U.S.

The Lebanese Civil War was compounded by the presence of several hundred thousand Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war that established Israel, who added to the Muslim majority and also, via the Palestine Liberation Organization, provoked Israel into a 1982 invasion. Israel succeeded in expelling the PLO from the country, but its presence there (along with a brief American deployment as well) helped give rise to Hezbollah, which, with the help of the Iranians, is far more powerful than what passes for the Lebanese army.

The country has a fifth of the economic output per person of Israel — about $10,000 annually — and is forever at the edge of a precipice. The Maronites’ dream of a “Paris of the Middle East” now has the aspect of a cruel joke.

The Paris of the Middle East (Photo by Piotr Chrobot via Unsplash)

What is the lesson? The main one is universal. If you’re going to have a multiethnic country, you’d better have a population that loves multiculturalism (as many populations seem not to).

The more pointed one is for the neighbors to the south. You really want a “Greater Israel”? You think you can forever dominate the Muslim Palestinians? Look at Lebanon, think long and think hard. You must eradicate Hamas — of that there is little doubt; but the lesson of the Oct. 7 massacre is probably that a real partition, an inamicable divorce, may be the less bad option.



Dan Perry

Journalist and comms professional who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Author of Israel & the Quest for Permanence.