Lebanese Civil War of 1958 - Lebanon Crisis DOCUMENTARY
Through the centuries, the Middle East has often found itself at the crossroads of history, an intersection point of empires, economics, cultures, and religions. The 20th Century was no exception and during the Cold War period, the events in one country of the Levant in particular had far reaching effects on the region and the world. I am of course talking about...Lebanon. You thought I was going to say Israel, didn’t you? The Lebanese Republic through the Cold War would find itself a flash point multiple times, and domestic events often rippled well beyond Lebanese borders. I’m your host David and today, we are going to talk about the 1958 Lebanon crisis and not only the impact on Lebanon itself but on the larger geopolitical stage. This is...The Cold War.
Following the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire, a multitude of new nations were created across the Middle East, but thanks to the Mandate system, the Great European powers maintained control over these territories. Included in this was Lebanon, under French Mandate by means of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Lebanon, unlike much of the Middle East, had a rather different and diverse ethno-religious composition in that the largest ethnic group living there were Maronite Christians comprising about 30% of the population, followed by Arab Sunnis, who made up about 20% of the population The Sunni community had a large and dominant presence in coastal Beirut, Sidon, and Tripoli. Although the Sunni community were Lebanese, their larger
loyalties often lay with the broader Arab identity of the Levant, including the idea of belonging to what is called “Greater Syria”. The Maronite Christian community on the other hand, with whom the Sunni Arabs had long struggled with for power in the area, tended to be more pro-Western and looked for closer relationships with countries like France and Great Britain. So, the establishment of the Lebanese Republic as a French Mandate in 1926 gave the Maronite Christian community a definite advantage in their power struggle with the Sunni Arabs. But to add further challenges to the ethno-religious mix in Lebanon, there were also two other minority groups to consider. Both Shiite Muslims and Druze had small but noteworthy populations living in Lebanon, neither of which were large enough or powerful enough to exert independent power but still had enough influence that by supporting or countering Maronite or Sunni factions, could act as power brokers.
Now, during the Mandate period, the Maronite community largely controlled state affairs. The Sunni community, outside the halls of power, maintained their largely loyalty to the idea of Greater Syria but the Maronite community began to fracture in its loyalties. Some Maronites wanted to maintain their close ties and reliance to the French but others began to favour the creation of a truly independent Lebanon, based on an agreed association with the Muslim communities. And then the war happened. France, so dramatically weakened by its surrender to the Germans, lost its strong image for many Maronites in Lebanon to the point that much of the Maronite leadership began to reconsider their position and sought an agreement with the Muslim population to create a fully independent Lebanon. In 1943, the Maronite leader Bechara el-Khoury reached an agreement with the Sunni leader Riyad al-Sulh on what became known as The National Covenant. This was a set of unwritten rules which aimed to preserve the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional status of Lebanon.
The National Covenant set out the following: 1) Maronite Christians would not seek Western intervention or integration and would accept Lebanon as being an Arab affiliated state while in exchange, the Muslim community would stop seeking their own unification with Syria. 2) The President and the Commander of the Armed Forces would always be a Maronite Christian, while the Prime Minister would always be a Sunni Muslim. The Speaker of the Parliament would be Shia, the deputy speaker would be Greek Orthodox and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces would always be Druze. And 3) The ratio of Parliamentary representation
would be 6:5 in favour of Christians to Muslims, with the Druze being included with Muslims. This ratio was agreed to based on the results of the 1932 census. All seems simple and agreeable enough, right? The agreement of the National Covenant established a unique constitutional framework for Lebanon. Included in this was Article 95: “As a provisional measure and for the sake of justice and concord, the communities shall be equitably represented in public employment and in the composition of the cabinet, such measure however, not to cause prejudice to the general welfare of the State.”. I think you all know where this is going to end up. Now, the president would be elected by the
Parliament, which was intended to be the strongest political institution in the country. But, and there is always a but, with the end of the French Mandate in 1943, the High Commissioner of the Mandate handed his authority to the President. As a result, the President of the newly independent Lebanon held a considerable amount of power, especially when merged with the autocratic tendencies prevalent at the time. So, as I’m sure you can imagine, the high hopes that had existed for a harmonious coexistence for all Lebanese communities based on the new power sharing structuring were...short-lived. The power struggle between the communities began almost immediately. Lebanese Muslims
were unhappy as they believed that the Christians held more power than they did, so began agitating for a new census which they believed would allow them to alter the National Covenant in their favour. Many Muslims also believed that the Christian communities were discriminating against them as they felt that majority-Muslim cities were in a state of decay; literacy rates were falling and basic services were being reduced. Weakening relations with neighbouring Syria were also hurting trade as a result of higher customs duties being applied. But, the living situation was also worsening for the Christian community as well. The challenges
being faced by Lebanon at the time were not uncommon for a newly independent country. In 1952, a coalition of Muslim and Christian leaders openly demanded the resignation of Bechara el-Khoury, the Maronite president. He made a request to the commander of the Armed Forces, a fellow Maronite named Fouad Chehab to intervene and use the armed forces to break the national strike that had been called. Chehab however, rejected the request,
and positioned the armed forces, itself composed of men from every group in Lebanon, as a neutral force in the country's emerging power struggle. al-Khoury was forced to resign and, in what has become known as the Rosewater revolution, Camille Chamoun became the new President. Now, as you can probably imagine, a new Maronite Christian President, didn’t do much to resolve the grievances put forward by the Muslim community. These grievances found their expression in an English-language pamphlet entitled “Moslem Lebanon Today”, which described how Lebanese Muslims felt themselves to be a downtrodden majority in a Christian-dominated state. For some additional perspective on this, keep in mind that at the same time in near-by Egypt, a seismic upheaval was going on there too, which the Lebanese were watching closely.
1952 saw the coup d’état which overthrew the Egyptian monarchy, leading to Gamal Abdel Nasser taking power. Nasser, who quickly gained much popular support for his strong anti-Western stance, became a second pillar to which the Lebanese Muslims could look towards; Damascus and Cairo both gave hope for increased support to the Muslim communities of Lebanon. Nasser’s popularity, and influence, grew after Egypt’s victory against the Anglo-French coalition during the Suez Crisis in 1956. The rare occurrence of a victory over the Western powers turned Nasser into a revered figure among Muslim Arabs. According to Sheikh
Nadim al-Jisr, a leading opposition figure in Lebanon, Nasser “became, to all Arabs and Muslims, an object of worship next to God”. Despite bans put in place by the government, Lebanese Muslims celebrated the Egyptian victory. But while the Egyptian victory was celebrated by one group, it also put the Lebanese government into a very awkward spot regarding its foreign policy. While much of the Arab world moved to align itself to Egypt and broke off diplomatic relations with both France and Great Britain, Lebanon did not. This was despite expectation from other Arab nations and the Muslim communities inside Lebanon and the considerable pressure they all placed on the Chamoun government to do this. Now, Chamoun had already built a reputation for being able to deftly sidestep interstate Arab disputes. For example, when Egypt denounced the Iraqi government for joining CENTO, Chamoun
avoided taking sides by acting as a mediator in the case. But this time, he had to take a side; this was too big a deal and too prominent to avoid. Chamoun’s Prime Minister, Abdallah al-Yafi and the Oil Minister Saeb Salam, both Sunni, demanded that Lebanon publicly side with Egypt. It is widely believed that these demands were themselves being pushed by influencers in Egypt. But despite this pressure, including the resignation of al-Yafi and Salam, Chamoun would not yield, instead appointing a different Sunni politician Sami As-Sulh as Prime Minister. And diplomatic relations with Paris and London remained in place.
This, naturally, upset the large majority of Lebanese Muslims, who believed that by NOT siding with Egypt, Chamoun was siding with the West and therefore violating the National Covenant. However, Chamoun was of the view that if Lebanon was to side with the Arab world, then that decision would be made in violation of the National Covenant. Crisis loomed, as opposing sides had different expectations of what the future of Lebanon would look like, based on their own view of the National Covenant. And then things got more complicated. In 1957, US President Eisenhower declared the aptly
named Eisenhower Doctrine which declared the Middle East a strategically important region and declared that America would be ready to support Middle Eastern countries economically and militarily, particularly if those countries faced the threat of communism. The Chamoun government in Beirut accepted the Eisenhower Doctrine willingly. So willingly in fact, they accepted it before Congress even approved it. The move by the Chamoun government was
promptly labeled as treasonous by Muslim Lebanese for being in violation of the National Covenant. They felt that Chamoun was merely replacing France as the protector of the Lebanese Christian community with the United States. Using the pretext of the Eisenhower Doctrine, the US Sixth Fleet moved into position off the coast of Beirut. Charles Malik, the Lebanese Foreign Minister, informed Eisenhower that Lebanon was ready to fight the communist subversion that was growing in the region, asserting that Egypt and Syria were both falling under the influence of Moscow. But were they? Well, that is a difficult question. Both Damascus and Cairo were purchasing weapons from the Soviets but at the same time, they were strongly resisting the stationing of Soviet “advisors” in their countries. In reality, as shown by
archival documents studied by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, Nasser especially was using Moscow to create his own power base at the expense of Western power but was ideologically an Arab nationalist and not a communist, despite professions of his sympathy towards the ideology. Khrushchev understood this, but saw the opportunity to grow Soviet influence in the Middle East while causing grief for the Americans. Of course, the American’s didn’t have this insight at the time and just saw Moscow’s growing influence. Now, along with Chamoun’s controversial foreign policy was a strong authoritarian streak. This added to unpopularity and broadened the scope of the coalition arrayed against him. His term as President was set to end in September of 1958 and the terms of the
Constitution only allowed him a single term in office. However, Chamoun’s critics feared that he might use a loyal Parliament to secure a second term. In May of 1957, the commander of the Lebanese army, a Maronite named Fouad Chehab, confided his concerns to a visiting US representative over Chamoun’s dictatorial style and the ethno-religious split it was causing amongst the political elites. Chebab, like many, were concerned that the Chamoun government was going to tamper with the elections set to be held in June. A broad but united coalition, the National Front, formed in opposition to Chamoun. It
was primarily supported by the Sunni community but did also include Christian, Shiite and Druze representation. The National Front wanted a neutral government to conduct the parliamentary elections and, despite a ban being put in place, demonstrations and strikes were carried out to this end. Some terrorist attacks were even carried out in Beirut, targeting buildings owned by the British and French. Despite all of this however, Chamoun had no intention of backing down. The elections went ahead in June, but the results only inflamed the situation. Pro-Chamoun candidates won a majority although it must
be pointed out that there were many claims of gerrymandering and interference in the conduct of the vote. Both the CIA and the US Embassy asserted that Chamoun had rigged the elections to ensure his re-election as President. The Anti-Chamoun coalition accused him of trying to violate the National Covenant and run for a second term. Chamoun did not make things any easier by refusing to deny his intention to run for that second term.
He said that he had not changed his mind regarding altering the Constitution, and that he would be obliged to “reconsider his position if he were not certain of finding a successor who would carry on his policy”. Now the opposition also accused the US government of financing pro-Chamoun candidates. And there was truth in this. According to CIA operative Wilbur Eveland, the Americans had financially supported the electoral efforts of pro-Chamoun candidates and even stated “We’d already bought him a Parliament”. Some other US representatives have downplayed the involvement of US financing, claiming that only a few were ever supported and that there was no systematic effort by Washington to ensure Chamoun’s ultimate victory. OK, so what we have so far is a fracturing
multi-ethnic and multi-confessional state struggling to decide if it wants to align itself to its Muslim Arab neighbours or to the Christian West. Then on top of that we can add an international power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union as the two Superpowers vied for influence in the strategically key region of the Middle East. And then add to that, regional powers wanting to use the resources of the Superpowers to consolidate and further their own power while trying to avoid becoming subservient to them. Everybody with me then? Because things are about to get extra interesting. In February of 1958, the drama continued to escalate. Egypt and Syria decided to merge
into one country, the United Arab Republic. The reactions in Lebanon split very much along ethno-religious lines. Chamoun and most Christians opposed the initiative to create the new regional power and refused to recognize it. The Muslim opposition however, went so far as to travel to Damascus in order to offer their congratulations. Once there, they were even told by the outgoing Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatly that Lebanon would be more than welcome to join the UAR, even promising its autonomy within the union. What followed was an outbreak of demonstrations
and riots across Lebanon in favour of the United Arab Republic. These were of course primarily centered in the Muslim dominated areas and there were even multiple reports of the Lebanese flag being torn down and trampled and then replaced by the flag of the UAR. The crisis in Lebanon was growing and the Chamoun administration needed to regain control and reassert their dominance over the nation. In order to do this, Chamoun and Malik requested
American involvement, citing the threat posed by the UAR. The threat pointed out to the Americans was not only that posed to Lebanese sovereignty but to American positions in the Middle East by the pro-soviet and pro-Arab nationalist UAR. Chamoun wanted to internationalize the crisis in his country in order to get the United States to intervene on his behalf. So how did the Americans feel about this? It would be easy to say that the American’s always liked a good foreign intervention but, in this case, it simply isn’t the case.
The US didn’t want to get involved. First of all, the Eisenhower administration didn’t want to further antagonize the rest of the Arab world. Secondly, they just didn’t believe that there was an imminent, external threat posed to Lebanon and they could see that Chamoun and Malik were exaggerating the threat in order to prompt US involvement. And the situation began to calm down. Until it suddenly flared again. On the night of the 7th of May, 1958 Nasib al-Matni, the editor of the pan-Arabist newspaper At-Tilighraf was shot dead in Beirut. The National Front accused the government of orchestrating the killing and strikes were called. Not all of the strikes were carried out peacefully however
and it didn’t take long for full-on fighting to break out between opposition demonstrators and government forces. The opposition hoped the violent action and the chaos would force Chamoun to concede and vacate his position. The UAR, seeing the opportunity to extend their influence, began to provide support to the pro-UAR/anti-Chamoun factions. Support which included arms, moral and diplomatic support and in some instances even supplied men to help conduct operations. Now, we have to point out that this wasn’t something
particularly new; Syria had been smuggling arms and other supplies to pan-Arab factions in Lebanon since at least the time of the Suez Crisis. The Lebanese army, still under the command of Fouad Chehab, continued to refuse to take sides. Chehab would not support Chamoun and the government to put down the protests as Chehab insisted the armed forces should remain a neutral force in the country. Individual incidents flared across the country, turning into violent clashes between pro-government and anti-government forces, with groups taking control of areas of the country, creating a patchwork of factionalized enclaves. What has become known as the Lebanese Civil War of 1958 was composed of armed bands of anti-government forces gaining the upper hand, largely the result of the military supplies they were receiving from the UAR. The fighting claimed the lives of between four to six thousand people.
And the International reaction to this deepening of the crisis? Well, it convinced the Eisenhower administration even more that they wanted no involvement in a Lebanese civil war. In no way did they want to be entangled in a fight against the forces of Arab nationalism. Fortunately, by the end of May, tensions in Lebanon were beginning to ease somewhat allowing the US to make a statement that they did not consider Lebanon to be under threat by international communism, so therefore the Eisenhower Doctrine didn’t apply. This didn’t stop Washington
from airlifting police equipment to Beirut however, nor did it stop them from moving elements of the Sixth Fleet into the Eastern Mediterranean, just in case. They also resumed joint contingency planning with the British but they did stop short of direct military intervention. The Soviet Union, for its part, spoke against any foreign intervention in Lebanon, stating that Western intervention would help destabilize the Middle East and put the independence of Lebanon under threat. Beyond this, the Kremlin took no concrete actions, satisfying itself by stating its position and warning the US against intervention. Khrushchev at this point was occupied with plans to force a resolution
to the so-called German Question and the status of Berlin, and didn’t want those plans complicated by an extended crisis in the Middle East. Chamoun, denied American support, then turned to both The Arab League and the United Nations seeking their backing instead. The Lebanese government's case to the Arab League fell flat however as the Egyptian position in the League was far stronger than Beirut’s and on June 6, 1958 the Arab League passed a resolution backing the Egyptian position which rejected the existence of UAR intervention in Lebanon.
Chamoun had little luck at the United Nations either. A Lebanese request was made to the UN Security Council to deploy a monitoring mission to investigate if men and arms were being infiltrated across the Lebanese border from the UAR. The Soviets, citing their support to the UAR in the matter, abstained from voting and the mission was created, the United Nations Observation Group in Lebanon or UNOGIL. Their task was “to ensure that there is no illegal infiltration of personnel or supply of arms or other material across the Lebanese borders”.
The investigation by UNOGIL revealed that while there was extensive movement of armed groups inside of Lebanon, there was no conclusive proof of mass-infiltration by the UAR. An attempt by the Americans to work with Nasser as a mediator to help broker a peace in Lebanon was rejected by Chamoun, who still refused to work with the United Arab Republic. Things were looking desperate for Chamoun, with no conclusive or decisive support being offered to him and his government. And then the 14th of July happened. That was the date that the pro-Western Hashemite monarchy of Iraq, led by King Faisal, was overthrown and Faisal killed. Led by Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim, a nationalist and pan-Arabist, this threw the US a massive curveball. While the Hashemite government had been firmly pro-Western
and considered a bulwark of stability in the region, it was assumed that the coup had been sponsored by Nasser and that the loss of Iraq would be quickly followed by similar acts in other pro-Western Middle Eastern states such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Jordan, Turkey, and, of course, Lebanon. And of course, you will remember that the Americans believed Nasser to be a tool of Moscow and international communism. In reality, while the 14 July Revolution was inspired by Nasser’s actions in Egypt in 1952, Nasser was uninvolved in the Iraqi coup and was not a communist. Of course, the US didn’t know this at the
time and based on the information they had available to them, and the way they interpreted it, they decided to act. CIA Director Allen Dulles was a chief supporter of direct intervention in the region and Vice-President Nixon even advocated dispatching troops to Baghdad. Chamoun made a formal request to the Americans for military support and this time, the call was immediately answered. On July 15, the day after the Iraqi coup, the US launched Operation Blue Bat. Under the justification of the Eisenhower Doctrine, US Marines landed on the beaches of Beirut and in the expectation of a widening conflict, tactical nuclear weapons based in Germany were prepared for transport to the region. The landings went well, with
no bloodshed, instead being greeted by sunbathers as they came ashore. The Lebanese commander, General Chehab, however informed the US Ambassador to Lebanon that if the Marines advanced into the city, then Lebanese forces would be forced to open fire. This left the Marines in a somewhat precarious position, until the US Ambassador brokered a deal, against orders from Washington by the way, to allow Lebanese forces to ‘escort’ US troops to positions south of Beirut, allowing them to occupy the airport and the main approaches to the city. In total, 14,000 US troops were involved in Blue Bat, both Marines and Army and were supported by over 40,000 sailors on 70 ships deployed in the Eastern Mediterranean. The presence of US troops proved to be enough to help bring the chaos and struggle in Lebanon back under control. Nasser stepped back from the support the UAR was providing to the pro-Arab Lebanese factions and also called on the Soviet Union to only intervene in the event that US troops moved directly against either the UAR or Iraq. Essentially, Nasser took steps to avoid a larger international conflict from
erupting in the Middle East over the status of Lebanon. Chamoun, his authority now stripped of legitimacy in the eyes of many Lebanese, made the decision to step down, although in an act designed to help him save-face, he was allowed to remain in office until the official end of his term, September 22. This didn’t stop General Fouad Chehab from being elected the next President on the 31st of July.
As for the Americans, they realized within a few days that the coup in Iraq was not only not sponsored by Nasser but equally not sponsored by Khrushchev or communism. Not wanting to have their troops mired in Lebanon, they began to advocate for a UN-sponsored military mission to replace US troops on the ground in order to maintain the peace that had been established. The Soviet Union on the other hand didn’t want the Americans to wait the length of time it would take to put a UN mission together and instead, called for the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Lebanon as well as all British troops that had been dispatched to Jordan. And not only did they call for the withdrawals, they vetoed in the Security Council all proposals put forward by the United States that would have created a UN mission. And then, on the 20th of August, in a somewhat surprising turn of events, the representatives of the Arab nations at the United Nations publicly affirmed their commitment to Article 8 of the Charter of the Arab League Pact. Article 8 states, “Every member State of the League shall respect the form of government obtained in the other States of the League, and shall recognize the form of government obtained as one of the rights of those States, and shall pledge itself not to take any action tending to change that form.” They had just
publicly pledged to maintain the sovereignty of Lebanon. With the potential for an international crisis now averted and peace returning to the country, people could take stock of the impact of the crisis. We already mentioned the dead, between four and seven thousand. In addition, the Lebanese economy had been heavily impacted. While the fighting had been going on, the port of Beirut had been forced to close and almost all commerce, banking, industry, transport and the tourist trade had ground to a halt.
In Beirut alone, there were at least 30,000 unemployed. People now needed to get back on their feet and try to return to a normal life. Politically, people understood that the same fractured system as established in the National Covenant could not continue so a new consensus was reached among the political elites. The Salvation Cabinet was formed, composed of four ministers, two Muslim and two Christian. For the first time, Muslims had equal political representation alongside Christians. Hussein
Al-Oweini was selected as the first Muslim foreign minster in Lebanese history. By October of 1958, life in Lebanon was beginning to resume some normalcy. Included with this was the withdrawal of US troops, a process completed by October 25. And that completed
the first major troop intervention by the United States into the Middle East. But certainly not the last as history and this channel will show. Overall then, what was the legacy of the 1958 Lebanon crisis? Well, in the short term, a brief civil war was ended by means of the intervention of foreign troops, setting a precedent. The cracks of factionalism present in Lebanese politics and society had been taped over but were very much still present as no real solution had been found. Lebanese Muslims and Christians each still had fundamentally different views on what the future of the country should look like. Regional events in the years after 1958 would apply dangerous
new pressures into the already precarious balance of peace in Lebanon, eventually leading to the devastating civil war of the 1970s and 1980s. We hope that you have enjoyed today’s episode and to make sure you don’t miss all of our future episodes please make sure you subscribe to our channel and have landed thousands of Marines in order to secure the bell button from the threat of factionalism. We can be reached via email at email@example.com and we are active on facebook and instagram at TheColdWarTV. If you enjoy our work please consider supporting us via www.patreon.com/thecoldwar or through YouTube membership! And don’t forget: the trouble with a Cold War is that it doesn’t take too long before it gets heated.