The Lebanese Christians:
Unsuspecting Victims of a Sunni Shiite Cold War in Lebanon
by Don Quixote*
Center for Democracy in Lebanon | September 21, 2007
of the Sunni Shiite Cold War in Lebanon
The 2004 Presidential Elections
and UNSC-R 1559
The 2005 Parliamentary Elections
The International Investigations and Tribunal
2007 Presidential Elections
The Christians' Sour
On September 19, 2007, Sin El-Fil, a Christian neighborhood in East
Beirut was the scene of a large car bomb that targeted the car of MP
Antoine Ghanim killing him with 9 other innocent bystanders and injuring
more than 60 civilians.
The attack on MP Ghanim in Sin El-Fil is the eighteenth in a
series of terrorist attacks
that hit Lebanon after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik
Hariri in February 2005. Similar previous attacks aimed at the
assassination of prominent leaders and public figures (Samir Kassir,
Georges Hawi, Elias El-Murr, May Chidiac, Gebran Tueini, Pierre Gemayel,
Walid Eido and Antoine Ghanem) and at creating mayhem and killing
innocent civilians in different areas of Keserwan, Metn and Beirut (New
Jdeideh, Kaslik, Sad El-Bouchrieh, Broummana, Jounieh, Monot, Zalka,
Jeitawi, Ain Alak and Sin El-Fil). Except for the assassination of
MP Walid Eido, seventeen of the eighteen acts of terrorism targeted
Christian civilians, leaders, members of Parliament (MPs), public
figures, and civilian and business targets.
The cliché response adopted by the Hariri bloc and its supporters has
constantly and consistently accused the Syrian regime of masterminding
these attacks to weaken the resolution of the Lebanese people and their
aspiration for sovereignty and independence and to rob the parliamentary
majority led by Mr. Hariri (a Sunni) of its control over the government,
in order to ultimately derail the international tribunal instituted to
try the assassins of Hariri's father.
The opposition’s cliché, on the other hand, has been to avoid making
“political accusations” in the matters of these attacks (not even
against their usual suspect, Israel), and to indulge in international
conspiracy theories; for example, creating chaos to derail the Islamic
Resistance from its mission and engage the arms of Shiite Hezbollah in
an internal war that only serves the interests of America and Israel.
Opposition leaders do not hesitate to accuse the “forces of the
authority” of exploiting the attacks to strengthen their grip on the
Between the Sunni rush to judgment and the Shiite conspiracy theories,
the truth is lost and the politically diverse Christians (some regard
them as divided) are paying a heavy price, unaware that they may be the
unwitting player, the fuel consumed, in a Sunni-Shiite conflict, in
reality a cold war simmering slowly in their front yard.
of the Sunni Shiite Cold War in Lebanon
Supporters of the late US president Ronald Reagan often brag about
Reagan’s genius in winning the cold war with the former Soviet Union
“without a single shot being fired.” What they neglect to mention,
inadvertently or deliberately is that the war between the USA and the
former USSR may have been cold in Europe and North America but was
undeniably hot and blazing in many other areas around the world
including Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, … and of course Lebanon.
The golden rule of a cold war is for the main players to fight it
“diplomatically” on their turf, and to use alternative territories,
those of friends, allies and alter-egos to warm it up every now and then
as it becomes necessary. Such is the status of the current cold war
between Sunnis and Shias in Lebanon.
It may be hard to trace the exact origins of this Sunni Shiite conflict;
some “scholars” link it back to the historic rift between Sunni and Shia
Islam; “analysts” with a regional panache prefer more recent
precipitants such as the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, the growing threat
that Shiite Iran poses to the Sunni Arab World today, or an expansion of
the Sunni Shiite war in Iraq, which many regard as part of the larger
conflict between Iran and the USA; on the other hand, many “experts” in
Lebanese politics prefer to give it a rather national dimension and
frame it in the context of a power struggle between two
political-sectarian** groups for the control of the Muslim role in the
Lebanese Government and subsequently of Lebanon. These causes are not
Regardless of its exact roots, the conflict began to escalate in the
year 2000 after the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon. Key events
over the last 3 years have plainly outlined this conflict and defined
the phases of this cold war within a clear political framework:
Presidential Elections and UNSC-R 1559:
In the summer of 2004, the Sunnis in Lebanon having fallen in disfavor
of the Alawite Syrian Regime that controlled Lebanese politics, may have
sought help from their regional and international friends. The United
Nations Security Council passed UNSC Resolution 1559; it called for
independent presidential elections and disarmament of all militias in
Lebanon including Shiite Hezbollah. But lacking real power on the
ground, then Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri - a Sunni leader and a
wealthy businessman with access to powerhouses all over the world -
opted to tactically stay in the Syrian realm, amended the constitution,
and voted to renew the appointment of President Emile Lahoud, Syria’s
choice and a pro-Shia Maronite. Simultaneously, Hariri started a gradual
drift from the Syrian orbit. In October of that year, Hariri’s ally
Marwan Hamadeh survives an attempt on his life. On February 14, 2005,
Rafik Hariri is assassinated in Beirut.
Phase 1 is over; except for UNSC-R 1559, the Shias seem to have won
The assassination of Rafik Hariri marked the end of an era in Lebanon.
Up till that point, the Lebanese Christians had stood alone - as
outcasts - in demanding freedom, sovereignty and independence of Lebanon
from the grip of the Syrian regime. Their participation in politics was
merely symbolic; the few independent ones were alienated and the ones in
government were deemed “pets” of the Muslims in power (Lebanese or
The 2005 Parliamentary
In March 2005, droves of Shiites and Sunnis took to the streets of
Beirut on 2 separate occasions (March 8 and March 14) in shows of mass
power and in support of a wide number of slogans; yet a concealed reason
for those demonstrations may have well been to determine who among the
two groups (Sunni or Shia) gets to name the Christian representatives in
the coming parliamentary elections. The Sunnis and their allies adopted
for the first time the Christian slogans of sovereignty, freedom and
independence; their demonstration attracted a large majority of
Christians, including the supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement (Tayyar;
the most popular Christian movement then).
Soon after, the Christian towns of New Jdeideh, Kaslik, Sad El-Bouchrieh,
Broummana, Jounieh … became the targets of deliberate bomb attacks. Thus
a new cycle of violence against the Christians began. This cycle
continues and has so far claimed the lives of more than 100 civilians in
total, and 5 prominent Christian leaders [the latest being the attack in
Sin El-Fil (number 17), which claimed the life of Maronite MP Antoine
Ghanem]. Two other Christian public figures survived assassination
attempts. Of note, the perpetrators remain at large (not to say unknown)
more than 2 years after the first attack.
In May 2005, Sunnis and Shias reached an agreement on the electoral law,
to the exclusion of key Christian decision makers and against the
expressed will of Bkérké and its “political bureau”, and they took the
country to parliamentary elections.
In June 2005, a new Parliament convenes with Sunni majority control.
Sunnis and Shias agreed on the name of the only Shiite candidate Nabih
Berri - sitting speaker for more than 15 years and a close friend of
Syria. The main Christian bloc in Parliament led by General Michel Aoun
did not vote for Berri.
Phase 2 is over; except for the appointment of Nabih Berri as
Speaker, the Sunnis seem to have won round 2.
International Investigations and Tribunal:
In the summer of 2005, the newly nominated Sunni PM, Fouad Siniora,
forms a Cabinet of 24, with 6 pro-Shiite and 18 pro-Sunni Ministers. The
largest independent Christian parliamentary bloc led by MP Michel Aoun
is excluded from the cabinet and becomes the nucleus of a new opposition
Explosions continue to target Christian towns and public figures (Elias
El-Murr attempt, Monot, Zalka and Jeitawi explosions and May Chidiac
attempt). The attacks on Christians would continue as the investigations
into the Hariri assassination waxed and waned and as the quest for an
international tribunal makes its way to the UN Security Council.
In December 2005, as discussions over the request to institute an
international tribunal to try the suspects in the Hariri assassination
become heated, Christian MP Gebran Tueini is assassinated. The Cabinet
meets in an urgent manner, and over the objection of the Shiite
ministers, makes a request to the UN to institute an international
tribunal. The decision is taken by the pro-Sunnis in the cabinet after
the Shiite ministers withdrew from the meeting.
Subsequently, in February 2006, Shiite Hezbollah and the Christian "Free
Patriotic Movement" reach - across the wide political and ideological
divide that separates them - an “entente cordiale” on a number of
key issues, including the arms of Hezbollah.
A round table dialogue was called for in March 2006 by Shiite Speaker
Nabih Berri. After several months of meetings with no results, the
dialogue was stopped as Shiite Hezbollah launched an attack on Israel
across the border.
The summer of 2006 was really hot in Lebanon. The Hezbollah-Israeli war
lasted more than a month during which more than a thousand Lebanese were
killed and more than a Million Shiites were displaced from their homes.
In the first days of the war, key Sunni Arab states - Saudi, Jordan and
Egypt - and the government of PM Seniora criticized the actions of
Hezbollah as a rash adventure. This led many Shias to regard the Israeli
aggression as a Sunni attack with Jewish tools. At the end, despite
Hezbollah’s claim of victory, the Sunni government negotiated UNSC-R
1701 and took control of South Lebanon militarily through the Army,
technically suspending the legitimacy of the Shiite Hezbollah arms.
Following the war, pro-Shiite ministers resigned from the Cabinet
claiming disagreement over the rules, bylaws and regulations negotiated
to control the international tribunal for Lebanon. The Cabinet has
become now all pro-Sunni; pro-Shiites tried to make a constitutional
argument that it is illegitimate and in violation of the constitution
and the political customs in Lebanon, but their arguments fell on deaf
Sunni ears. The Shias and the pro-Shiite camp suffered subsequently a
major political loss.
In November of 2006, as the negotiations to get the Shias back into the
Sunni Cabinet reached a deadlock, the Shias “formally joined the
opposition.” The rhetoric continued to heat up between Shia and Sunni
over the approval of the international tribunal’s law; Christian MP
Pierre Gemayel is assassinated. The Sunni Cabinet swiftly approves the
law of the tribunal.
A very eerie apprehension takes over many Christians; all of sudden, it
seemed as if a prominent Christian public figure had to be assassinated
every time the Sunni Cabinet had to overcome a snag. The Sunnis rushed
to assure the Christians that Tueini and Gemayel were killed simply
because they were pro-independence and opposed to Syria.
The winter of 2007 saw some of the most violent direct confrontations
between Sunnis and Shias following a call for strike by the pro-Shiite
opposition. The strike failed as did the attempts to overthrow the Sunni
Cabinet; but an opposition sit-in began in Downtown Beirut. The
pro-Shiite President Emile Lahoud refuses now to sign any decisions made
by the Sunni cabinet including the decision to approve the treaty of the
international tribunal. The Sunnis request international support; the
United Nations Security Council passes resolution 1757, instituting the
tribunal under chapter 7 of the UN charter, bypassing thereby the need
for Shiite approval and for presidential signature.
Phase 3 is over; except for the Shiite sit-in in Beirut, the Sunnis
seem to have won round 3.
The 2007 Presidential
As Lebanon was getting ready to enter the 2007 presidential election
season, a whole new “feature” emerged on the Lebanese scene. The Army,
under orders from the Sunni Cabinet was called upon for the first time
in its history to fight a war against Fateh El-Islam (a Sunni terrorist
group allegedly trained in Syria) in the refugee camp of Nahr El-Bared
in North Lebanon. Hezbollah initially declared both the Army and the
camp as red lines but eventually took no sides in the war. The war
displaced more than 30,000 Sunni Palestinian refugees. Despite the
Army’s victory, the repercussions of this war on the Sunni society
remain yet to be seen. During this war Sunni MP Walid Eido was
assassinated in the only terrorist attack on a non-Christian target
since Hariri’s assassination. Although many in the Sunni camp saw in the
assassination retaliation against UNSC-R 1757 - as proof, they cite the
Shiite celebrations and an incident with the Shiite TV channel NBN -
several analysts regard the assassination as reprisal by Fateh El-Islam
against Lebanese Sunnis, who by and large stood by the Army.
As Lebanon is about to enter the 2-months constitutional period for the
election of a new Maronite President of the Republic, Sunnis and Shias
differ again on the choice of candidate. They frame their disagreement
in constitutional arguments about the quorum; but the main reason for
the dispute is who gets to control the presidency. Currently, the Shias
have a firm grip on Emile Lahoud.
In the heat of the debate, the Maronite Bishops issued on September 19,
what Marwan Hamadeh described as “another historic declaration.” The
declaration called upon all MPs to participate in the parliamentary
session to elect a president; it also criticized without naming it, a
large sect in Lebanon for retaining arms and trying to build a state
within a state. The tone of the declaration was clearly pro-Sunni not to
say anti-Shia. Within hours of the declaration, Maronite MP Antoine
Ghanem was assassinated in a huge explosion that rocked the Christian
neighborhood of Sin El-Fil. In an immediate reaction, pro-Sunni groups
requested the support of the Arab World and the UN in conducting the
presidential elections; a pre-packaged request that has been floating in
the political atmosphere for few weeks.
Once again, that very eerie feeling creeps into the Christian psyche. It
remains to be seen if the UNSC will issue a new resolution leveraging
the Sunni hand in Lebanon, one more time, or if the Shias get to retain
some control over the new president, if there is going to be one.
Either way, the Christians have little if any to say in the upcoming
election of a new president; a post customarily reserved for them. For
all one knows, an agreement between Sunni Hariri and Shiite Berri
similar to that of 2005 is capable of generating an all Muslim momentum,
large enough to appoint a new Christian President - without the
Phase 4 is not over yet; the winner remains to be determined.
The Christians’ Sour Options
Except for the lone assassination of Walid Eido, all 17 attacks since
March 2005 took place against Christians; not to forget the Sunni
burning of Ashrafieh streets and churches on February 5, 2006 following
cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published in Denmark, or the Shiite
attack on Christian neighborhoods also in the Southern Suburb and
Ashrafieh following an episode of Basmat Watan (a political satire
program) on June 1, 2006, which depicted Hassan Nasrallah (a Shiite
cleric and Hezbollah’s Leader) in a comic character.
Without detailing the chronology of all the other events and reviving
the sad memories of each one, it is safe to say that they all happened
around key decisions where Shias and Sunnis in government did not see
eye to eye. Instead of heating up the war between the two groups
directly, someone found an easier alternative and a less costly target:
the Christians – their blood may be cheaper.
This is not to say that there was an executive decision by the Sunni
political leadership or by the Shiite political leadership to kill the
Christians; but both Sunnis and Shias have, in their cold war, created a
fertile environment for the forces of darkness to further their agendas;
be it pro-Syrian, pro-Iranian, pro-American or pro-Islamic. The only
agenda that certainly does not seem to be furthered in Lebanon today, is
Some may hint at a pro-Christian agenda behind the assassinations,
furthered by ultra right-wing zealots and ex-cons released from jail in
recent years; but this seems a bit far fetched. Since 1990, the
Christians have become the weakest minority in Lebanon, marginalized in
all political decisions. Many of their leaders are chosen on their
behalf by the Sunnis or the Shias and act as alter-egos for the Muslim
decision-makers; this has rendered any pro-Christian scenario unlikely,
and made the Christians and their communities easy targets for the
extremists on both sides (Sunnis and Shias), who desire to send messages
across the Islamic sectarian divide.
This does not negate the need for a pro-Christian agenda given the
seeming impossibility of building a truly secular state, or at a minimum
one that guarantees the civil and human rights of its citizenry, before
the end of the Sunni Shiite cold war. This is not at all a call for
exaction of revenge against the Muslim communities in Lebanon; it is
however a call to raise awareness among the Lebanese in general and the
Christians in particular of the real threat conveniently ignored by
Given the intensity of the Sunni-Shiite conflict in Lebanon and its
regional and possible international dimensions, the Christians of
Lebanon lack the means needed to appease the tensions and to bring about
a resolution. On the contrary, they seem to be caught in the crossfire
between the two camps and risk being dragged, divided, in a civil war
not of their making and in which they may find themselves killing each
other one more time.
Christian civil and religious leaders and their supporters must realize
by now that their communities are being used as fuel in this unrelenting
Sunni-Shiite war. Instead of continuing to be mercilessly killed by a
“ghost” – to borrow a term from the Sunni Interior Minister Sabeh – and
wept over sometimes with crocodile tears, most Christians would rather
opt-out. They can no longer afford to play this intermediate role in
Lebanon; their communities are divided and constantly targeted, and
those among them who can afford it are immigrating to no return. Many of
them have become convinced that their best bet is in fact to opt-out of
the game and perhaps of the current “formula of Lebanon.”
Sometimes in order to save a people, you must break a nation –
or at least its political system.
A number of independent Lebanese Christian thinkers have begun to call
upon other Christian politicians and political groups to withdraw from
“national” coalitions and bilateral agreements with non-Christian groups
and to come together as Christians to develop a strategic plan that
promotes the safety and interests of the
Christian communities independently of other groups in Lebanon,
reverting back to a famous adage of the civil war: “Security of the
Christian society supersedes all other priorities.”
** N.B. The terms Sunni, Shiite (or Shia), Maronite, Christian, Muslim
or other religious indicators can reflect sectarian or political
affiliation in Lebanon interchangeably.
* The voice of one… or maybe of thousands.