Lebanon's different Muslim groups, principally the Shi'ite, Sunni, and Druse (Druze) sects, which made up about half the population, were discontented with the 1943 National Pact, which established a dominant political role for the Christians (Phalange Party or Phalangists), especially the Maronites, in the central government. Palestinians also lived in Lebanon, particularly in the south in refugee camps or in bases from which guerrillas of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) carried out attacks on neighboring Israel. Lebanese Muslims tended to sympathize with the PLO.
The spark that ignited the war occurred in Beirut on April 13, 1975, when gunmen killed four Phalangists during an attempt on Pierre Jumayyil's life. Perhaps believing the assassins to have been Palestinian, the Phalangists retaliated later that day by attacking a bus carrying Palestinian passengers across a Christian neighborhood, killing about twenty-six of the occupants. The next day fighting erupted in earnest, with Phalangists pitted against Palestinian militiamen (thought by some observers to be from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). The confessional layout of Beirut's various quarters facilitated random killing. Most residents of Beirut stayed inside their homes during these early days of battle, and few imagined that the street fighting they were witnessing was the beginning of a war that was to devastate their city and divide the country.
Despite the urgent need to control the fighting, the political machinery of the government became paralyzed over the next few months. The inadequacies of the political system, which the 1943 National Pact had only papered over temporarily, reappeared more clearly than ever. For many observers, at the bottom of the conflict was the issue of confessionalism out of balance--of a minority, specifically the Maronites, refusing to share power and economic opportunity with the Muslim majority.
The government could not act effectively because leaders were unable to agree on whether or not to use the army to stop the bloodletting. When Jumblatt and his leftist supporters tried to isolate the Phalangists politically, other Christian sects rallied to Jumayyil's camp, creating a further rift. Consequently, in May 1975 Prime Minister Rashid as Sulh and his cabinet resigned, and a new government was formed under Rashid Karami. Although there were many calls for his resignation, President Franjiyah steadfastly retained his office.
As various other groups took sides, the fighting spread to other areas of the country, forcing residents in towns with mixed sectarian populations to seek safety in regions where their sect was dominant. Even so, the militias became embroiled in a pattern of attack followed by retaliation, including acts against uninvolved civilians.
Although the two warring factions were often characterized as Christian versus Muslim, their individual composition was far more complex. Those in favor of maintaining the status quo came to be known as the Lebanese Front. The groups included primarily the Maronite militias of the Jumayyil, Shamun, and Franjiyah clans, often led by the sons of zuama. Also in this camp were various militias of Maronite religious orders. The side seeking change, usually referred to as the Lebanese National Movement, was far less cohesive and organized. For the most part it was led by Kamal Jumblatt and included a variety of militias from leftist organizations and guerrillas from rejectionist Palestinian (nonmainstream PLO) organizations.
By the end of 1975, no side held a decisive military advantage, but it was generally acknowledged that the Lebanese Front had done less well than expected against the disorganized Lebanese National Movement. The political hierarchy, composed of the old zuama and politicians, still was incapable of maintaining peace, except for occasional, short-lived cease-fires. Reform was discussed, but little headway was made toward any significant improvements. Syria, which was deeply concerned about the flow of events in Lebanon, also proved powerless to enforce calm through diplomatic means. And, most ominous of all, the Lebanese Army, which generally had stayed out of the strife, began to show signs of factionalizing and threatened to bring its heavy weaponry to bear on the conflict.
Syrian diplomatic involvement grew during 1976, but it had little success in restoring order in the first half of the year. In January it organized a cease-fire and set up the High Military Committee, through which it negotiated with all sides. These negotiations, however, were complicated by other events, especially Lebanese Front-Palestinian confrontations. That month the Lebanese Front began a siege of Tall Zatar, a densely populated Palestinian refugee camp in East Beirut; the Lebanese Front also overran and leveled Karantina, a Muslim quarter in East Beirut. These actions finally brought the main forces of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA), into the battle. Together, the PLA and the Lebanese National Movement took the town of Ad Damur, a Shamun stronghold about seventeen kilometers south of Beirut.
In spite of these setbacks, through Syria's good offices, compromises were achieved. On February 14, 1976, in what was considered a political breakthrough, Syria helped negotiate a seventeen-point reform program known as the Constitutional Document. Yet by March this progress was derailed by the disintegration of the Lebanese Army. In that month dissident Muslim troops, led by Lieutenant Ahmad Khatib, mutinied, creating the Lebanese Arab Army. Joining the Lebanese National Movement, they made significant penetrations into Christian-held Beirut and launched an attack on the presidential palace, forcing Franjiyah to flee to Mount Lebanon.
Continuing its search for a domestic political settlement to the war, in May the Chamber of Deputies elected Ilyas Sarkis to take over as president when Franjiyah's term expired in September. But Sarkis had strong backing from Syria and, as a consequence, was unacceptable to Jumblatt, who was known to be antipathetic to Syrian president Hafiz al Assad and who insisted on a "military solution." Accordingly, the Lebanese National Movement successfully pressed assaults on Mount Lebanon and other Christian-controlled areas.
As Lebanese Front fortunes declined, two outcomes seemed likely: the establishment in Mount Lebanon of an independent Christian state, viewed as a "second Israel" by some; or, if the Lebanese National Movement won the war, the creation of a radical, hostile state on Syria's western border. Neither of these possibilities was viewed as acceptable to Assad. To prevent either scenario, at the end of May 1976 Syria intervened militarily against the Lebanese National Movement, hoping to end the fighting swiftly. This decision, however, proved ill conceived, as Syrian forces met heavy resistance and suffered many casualties. Moreover, by entering the conflict on the Christian side Syria provoked outrage from much of the Arab world.
Despite, or perhaps as a result of, these military and diplomatic failures, in late July Syria decided to quell the resistance. A drive was launched against Lebanese National Movement strongholds that was far more successful than earlier battles; within two weeks the opposition was almost subdued. Rather than crush the resistance altogether, at this time Syria chose to participate in an Arab peace conference held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on October 16, 1976.
The Riyadh Conference, followed by an Arab League meeting in Cairo also in October 1976, formally ended the Lebanese Civil War; although the underlying causes were in no way eliminated, the full-scale warfare stopped. Syria's presence in Lebanon was legitimated by the establishment of the Arab Deterrent Force (ADF) by the Arab League in October 1976. In January 1977 the ADF consisted of 30,000 men, of whom 27,000 were Syrian. The remainder were token contingents from Saudi Arabia, the small Persian Gulf states, and Sudan; Libya had withdrawn its small force in late 1976. Because of his difficulties in reforming the Lebanese Army, President Sarkis, the ADF's nominal commander, requested renewal of the ADF's mandate a number of times.
Thus, after more than one and one-half years of devastation, relative calm returned to Lebanon. Although the exact cost of the war will never be known, deaths may have approached 44,000, with about 180,000 wounded; many thousands of others were displaced or left homeless, or had migrated. Much of the once-magnificent city of Beirut was reduced to rubble and the town divided into Muslim and Christian sectors, separated by the so-called Green Line.