Lebanon and Syria-Iraq: who is more fragile?

The depiction of Lebanon as the most brittle and even artificial nation in its region is based more on myth than reality, says Hazem Saghieh.

Hazem Saghieh
14 June 2014

Several observers have noted an interesting comparison regarding the presidents of Lebanon and Syria. In the first case, Michel Suleiman quietly left the presidential palace when his constitutional term expired; in the second, Bashar al-Assad pressed ahead with his campaign for “elections” to get a new term, amid the unquantifiable amount of killing, destruction, and displacement that he has caused.

This paradoxical situation in these neighbouring countries serves as a response to a prevalent narrative in Arab political thought, especially in nationalist and radical ranks. This holds that Lebanon is the most artificial and brittle nation of the Arab Mashreq, even of the Arab world as a whole.

True, Lebanon is in some measure artificial and brittle, like most countries born out of the two world wars - which account for the overwhelming majority of United Nations member-states. Moreover, the sectarian configuration of Lebanese society and the impact this has on the country’s political and cultural life beget never-ending crises, such as the conflict that broke out in 1975 and continued intermittently until 1990. Today, the Lebanese are again living through very difficult times.

Yet to regard Lebanon as the most brittle and artificial of the region's states invites qualification. To take but one relevant factor, nearly 1.5 million Syrians have now settled in Lebanon after their displacement by their country's regime and civil war; they follow the around 400,000 Palestinians who were driven out from their homeland in 1948 and again in 1967.

In reality, this common perception of Lebanon is far from completely innocent. Many myths have been woven to form it. One is the claim that Lebanon was carved out of Syria, when it is more accurate to say that both Syria and Lebanon were carved out of the Ottoman empire.

Others reflect elements inherent in radical Arab nationalist culture, which is fond of large countries with vast armies, and major economic markets to serve as a strong "material basis" for production. Such fondness is inspired by the experiences of German and Italian unification from the late 19th century, and that of the Soviet Union after its inception in 1917. Lebanon, needless to say, does not meet such specifications. Nor does the sizeable Christian role in Lebanon’s genesis as well as its history help it attract adulation in the region.

These myths have contributed to the manufactured image of Lebanon as artificial and brittle, which often gets things out of proportion. Even the tragedies of Lebanon are of a small scale compared to those of its neighbours, suggesting that the country's foundations are relatively stronger. 

Coup after coup

In the case of modern Iraq and Syria, successive military coups reflected the difficulty facing these two countries in settling on a polity that represents the consensus of their peoples.

Iraq ushered in the era of military coups in the Arab world with the coup led by Bakr Sidqi in 1936, followed by the coup led by Rashid Ali al-Gaylani and the fascist "Golden Square" officers in 1941. The monarchy was deposed in 1958 after a bloody coup, which in turn was followed by a Ba'ath-led coup in February 1963. Towards the end of 1963, a counter-coup took place. The Ba'ath again seized power in 1968. In 1979, Saddam Hussein pounced on some of his Ba'athist Shi'a comrades and took power. This sequence omits the numerous unsuccessful coup attempts throughout that period.

Syria has a similar story. In 1949, three years after the country got its independence, its first military coup was carried out by Hosni al-Zaim. There were three other coups in the same year, the last of which was led by Adib Shishakli, who was to lead another coup in the mid-1950s. After Shishakli was deposed, a silent civil war ensued between supporters of alliance with Egypt, who were mostly from Damascus, and supporters of alliance with Iraq, mostly from Aleppo.

Indeed, many Syrians thought they could escape having to deal with their own contradictions by offering their country as a gift to Nasser’s Egypt. Thus, Egypt and Syria united in one state in 1958, which then collapsed in 1961, the year a coup was carried out against a coup. The situation continued like this until the Ba'athists, in 1963, overthrew the “reactionary” regime. After bloody liquidations of their opponents, the “Ba'athist left” eliminated the “Baathist right” through another coup in 1966. Then, in 1970, Hafez al-Assad led a military coup that got rid of his comrades in the “Ba'athist left.”

Even in the case of the Palestinians, they faced the very hard situation in 1948 of being opposed by a force originating in Europe, which outmatched them in training, preparation, and skill. However, it is also true that the easy victory that the Zionist movement achieved that year would not have been possible without the Palestinian civil war in 1936, between the factions led by the Husseini and the Nashashibi families. This war revealed the enormous gap between Palestinian reality and nation-building in its modern sense, a gap which ended up with the Palestinians' handover as a lifeless body to the armed Zionist military groups.

A space to vent

The coup experiences common in Syria and Iraq are in general unknown to Lebanon, with the exception of two farcical coup attempts: one led by the Syrian Social Nationalist Partyin  the last days of 1961, another led by the army officer Aziz al-Ahdab in 1975. Both were ended almost as soon as they began. 

Lebanon has been aided in avoiding coups by the fact that the army there does not occupy a central position in the country’s political life. Thus, Lebanon’s freedoms - despite their chaotic nature and predisposition to turn into civil conflict - have allowed the country to vent its communal tensions in often non-violent ways and without the threat of a military takeover. 

This contrast does not itself vindicate the Lebanese experience. In its own terms it deserves a lot of criticism; measured against any mature democratic experience in the west, it would seem like a caricature of democracy. However, if Lebanon is measured against the political experiences in the other countries of the Mashreq, it appears ahead of them all, its brand of nation-building  far less fragile than theirs.

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