General Henri Gouraud Image Credit: Supplied

Lebanon existed for thousands of years, the home of Phoenicians that confronted the Roman Empire, succeeded by Christian, Muslim and Druze communities that established deep roots with the land even if, regrettably, all fell back on religious divides. More recently, Maronites and Druze established contact with European powers that influenced them. What united various groups was foreign occupation, which, in the case of the Ottomans, lasted from 1516 to 1918.

For many, Lebanon is a deeply troubled state, and while the 1916 Anglo-French conspiracy, carefully hatched by Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot divided up the Middle Eastern parts of the collapsing Ottoman Empire into Arab statelets that were to be controlled by Britain and France, Lebanon managed to outwit those that haunted it ever since.

Sykes-Picot granted Britain the right to administer Syria after it captured the Levant from the Ottomans in 1918. London’s man in Damascus, the Arab Revolt’s Faisal Bin Hussain, wanted a truly independent Syrian state that included Palestine, Transjordan, and Lebanon.

In 1919, London conceded at the Paris Peace Conference both Levantine entities to France, which moved quickly and, aware of Hashemite progress, settled on creating Greater Lebanon.

Whether the chief reason for French General Henri Gouraud, the military commander who proclaimed the establishment of the state within its current boundaries, was the result of any sympathies he felt towards the Lebanese was impossible to know. In the event, the Maronite Patriarch Elias Hoayek and two Christian intellectuals, Bulos Nujaym and Albert Naccache, both of whom attended the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference that determined the post-war environment, heavily influenced Gouraud.Lebanese voices were also heard because of the consequences of the Ottoman embargo during the war that led to a famine in which 200,000 died in Mount Lebanon alone, particularly in the districts of Byblos, Batroun and Tripoli, nearly half of the population at the time.

French bungling

Lebanon survived, became a republic under French supervision on August 24, 1920, promulgated a constitution on May 23, 1926, and elected a president — Charles Debbas — that same year. The French mandate was terminated with independence in 1943, and while the Sykes-Picot division of the Levant into two states did not stabilise Syria because the Sunni population opposed decentralisation. France managed to muck everything up by further dividing that hapless country into various statelets grouped within a federation that lasted until 1924. Nationalist elements, led by French-educated intellectual voices — ironically both Christian as well as Muslim — rejected the mandate and fought for independence.

Syria exploded in an anti-French uprising but Lebanon held together until 1958 when it skirted with a first major constitutional crisis that took on confessional characters at a time when the Nasser phenomenon mobilised the Arab world. The long anticipated civil war came in 1975, accelerated by the 1967 Arab-Israeli War that poured Palestinian refugees in the fragile country, even if latent domestic schisms were inherently present.

Sykes-Picot imposed a French Mandate but expanded Lebanon’s borders too— then primarily populated by Maronites and Druze — to include Syria’s Beqaa Valley. Lebanon gained sovereignty but its fundamental error was to settle on Consociationalism, a political system in which power is shared along confessional lines that Sykes-Picot encouraged because its authors believed that Arabs were not ready to adopt democracy. Detractors concluded that Lebanon was a hollow state bordering on fiction, but that reflected ignorance, and while the civil war failed to resolve key problems associated with confessionalism, the country survived even if the Taif Accords were not implemented.

In 2014, the Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Junblatt told the British journalist Robert Fisk that Sykes-Picot was dead, and while that could be an accurate reading, Lebanon exists today largely because of the secret accord. Every effort to redraw the country’s map, including a civil war whose consequences linger, failed to alter that reality and it may just be that Lebanon stands as Sykes-Picot’s only success, notwithstanding Junblatt’s profession.


Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of Iffat Al Thunayan: An Arabian Queen, London: Sussex Academic Press, 2015.