Lebanon’s Christians Are Back — ICG: by Peter Harling

Peter Harling: Director, Iraq-Syria-Lebanon Project
International Crisis Group

The New Lebanese Equation: The Christians’ Central Role, Middle East Report N°78, 15 July 2008

executive summary

After decades during which they saw their influence consistently decline, Lebanon’s Christians are in a position to once again play a decisive political role. The May 2008 Doha agreement, coming in the wake of Hizbollah’s takeover of West Beirut, provides the Christian community with the opportunity to regain an important place on the political map and to advance demands that have long been ignored. Already, Christians have obtained key positions in the new government, which was formed on 12 July. But the Doha agreement goes well beyond.

The Doha accords have ushered in three significant changes. First, they led to the election as president of Michel Suleiman, the former army commander. As a result, the Christians recovered the institution to which they are constitutionally entitled but whose effective powers had considerably diminished since the crisis began in 2004. The new president is likely to be courted by political actors of all stripes, each seeking to shape decisions he will face at his term’s outset. These include initiation of a dialogue on a national defence strategy (which, ultimately, will have to include the question of Hizbollah’s weapons), preparation of the 2009 parliamentary elections and the definition of new relations between Syria and Lebanon founded on mutual respect for sovereignty.

Secondly, the Doha agreement paves the way for a more Christian-friendly electoral law. Up until now, the electoral map was such that the vast majority of Christian candidates had to enter into alliances with the main Muslim parties. Most Christian politicians, it follows, were elected thanks to Muslim votes. Not any more. Post-Doha, Christian parliamentarians for the most part will be elected in predominantly Christian districts. That means they will have real leverage and be able to adjudicate between the two principal Muslim poles, the one dominated by the Sunni Future Movement, the other by the Shiite Hizbollah. Because Lebanon’s political system broadly allocates ministerial seats in accordance with various parties’ parliamentary weight, the Christian vote will be decisive in the establishment of a novel balance of power – unless, of course, violence or massive irregularities prevent the holding of elections or undermine their credibility.

Thirdly and lastly, Christians will be in a position to revitalise old demands which the rest of the political class generally has disregarded. President Suleiman mentioned these in his inaugural address and Michel Aoun, the community’s self-proclaimed leader, also made them the focus of his effort to build a large Christian coalition. Among these demands are long overdue and ever deferred administrative reforms (eg, decentralisation), empowering the presidency, ensuring better Christian representation in senior civil service positions, rejecting the naturalisation of Palestinian refugees and facilitating the return of displaced and exiled co-religionists. Never before have these claims – which have long obsessed members of the Christian community – been as central a part of the political debate as they are today. Because powerful Muslim actors will need to ensure the loyalty of Christian politicians, and because such politicians’ leverage thereby will be strengthened, some of these longstanding demands could well be realised in the end.

For Lebanon’s Christians, these represent potentially momentous changes. The formula devised in 1989 to end the fifteen-year civil war shifted the balance of power in a way that clearly disfavoured them: the president was stripped of several prerogatives while the number of parliamentary seats allocated to Christians was brought down from 60 to 50 per cent. The ensuing period was characterised by Syria’s military occupation and the systematic repression of pro-independence Christian movements. Already weakened by a substantial wartime exodus, the Christian community was both leaderless and adrift, contributing to a sense of dispossession that, to this day, shapes its outlook in profound ways.

Syria’s 2005 withdrawal enabled the return and release of key Christian leaders together with the reassertion of core demands. But the Christian political scene split into two camps. On one side, Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces and Amine Gemayel’s Phalanges banked on the end of all residual Syrian influence, joined forces with former pro-Syrian actors (a majority of Sunnis and Druze) and called upon the international community to help restore a sovereign Lebanese state. This latter goal would be achieved, in particular, by setting up an international tribunal charged with investigating former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s murder, imputed to Damascus, and by pressing for Hizbollah’s disarmament. On the other side, General Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement challenged the political system as a whole, breaking its isolation by forging a controversial understanding with Hizbollah, Syria’s main Lebanese ally.

The first camp defined the priority as genuine sovereignty through which would emerge a strong state capable of carrying out Christian demands. Aoun’s camp, by contrast, argued that its ties to a powerful actor, flexible on all issues other than its armed status, was the optimal way to address the community’s immediate and vital concerns. It also claimed that the emergence of an unchallenged Christian leader (read: Aoun as president) would allow a complete overhaul of the political system.

The tug of war between the two principal Christian camps is hardly over. Much will depend on the 2009 parliamentary elections which will be a test of their respective power and determine the country’s next government. In that sense, the Christian electorate – whose political preferences are by far the least predictable of all – will play a decisive role. Assuming it can play its role deftly, it will be in a position to promote policies it has long advocated. More importantly, it will be in a position to ensure that the country’s political conflicts are resolved within and not in spite of its institutions – through ballots rather than bullets. After one full-blown civil war and another near-miss, that would be no small achievement.

Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, Middle East Report N°77, 10 July 2008


A refugee crisis was feared before the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it came later than anticipated, and on a greater scale. It started not because of the military action, but two years later, when American efforts to rebuild the country faltered, …. While the security situation in Iraq shows progress, the refugee crisis will endure for some time and could worsen if that progress proves fleeting.

… Host countries must provide adequate services and protection. But donor countries and Iraq bear the greater responsibility to assist both the refugees and the host countries…..

While initially welcoming of their Iraqi brethren, Syria and Jordan soon began placing tough restrictions on refugee entry. Moreover, by either design or default, they provided few basic services and opportunities for employment, adequate health care or children’s education. Despite some overt signs of refugee opulence, notably in Amman – stirring envy and resentment among the local population – the result has been growing pauperisation of Iraqis, whose savings are being depleted, while alternative sources of income, whether from local employment or family remittances, are likely to dry up. With little to lose and nothing to look forward to, refugees could become radicalised and more violent; crime, which already has reached worrying levels in host countries, could rise. The principal host countries, whose socio-economic capacities are being stretched, will bear an increasingly costly burden; this, in turn, could exacerbate tensions between host and refugee populations.

If Jordan, Syria and Lebanon can be faulted for unfriendly treatment of refugees at border crossings and lukewarm assistance once they have entered, they should, nonetheless, be credited for having agreed to receive so many Iraqis in the first place and allowing them to stay at great cost to their own societies. By contrast, it is difficult to give the Iraqi government any credit at all. Flush with oil money, it has been conspicuously ungenerous toward its citizens stranded abroad. No doubt there are senior former regime figures among the refugees, but this does not excuse callous neglect of overwhelmingly non-political people who loyally served Iraq rather than any particular regime.

The approach of the international community, especially states that have participated in Iraq’s occupation, has been equally troubling. Western nations have been happy to let host countries cope with the refugee challenge, less than generous in their financial support, and outright resistant to the notion of resettlement in their midst. Although it has contributed more than most, the U.S., whose policies unleashed the chaos that spawned the outflow, has clearly failed in its own responsibilities: downplaying the issue, providing far less assistance to host countries than needed and admitting to its own shores merely a trickle of refugees and only after unprecedented security checks to which asylum seekers from other nations are not subjected…..

…For the vast majority of refugees, returning home is the only viable solution, but that will not happen soon. In the meantime, the international community – especially countries that bear responsibility for the war and the post-war chaos – has an obligation to do more both to assist refugees in host countries and to welcome additional Iraqis on their own soil.

This is a humanitarian tragedy, but it is more than that. Rich in oil, Iraq today is bankrupt in terms of human resources. It will take decades to recover and rebuild. Because most refugees come from what used to be the (largely secular) middle class, their flight has further impoverished Iraq and potentially deprived it of its professional stratum for a decade or more. The period of exile should be used to teach refugees new skills to facilitate their eventual social reintegration and contribution. There is every reason to assist host countries in that endeavour.

Comments (8)

Alex said:


My father noted something during the 14th of July celebrations:

None of the ceremonial presidents were seated front row.

1) Lebanese president was sitting front row
2) Lebanese prime minister was not invited.
Needless to say, if it was Chirac’s time, we would have had Hariri (Rafiq, or Saad) sitting front row and Lebanon’s ex-president (Lahhoud) not invited.

This is due to personalities as well as the position itself … one more sign that the Lebanese (Christian) presidency has been given back some of its old status.

You can also note how Syria wants to negotiate everything (embassy, borders, etc) with the President, not with the Prime minister.

It was a mistake from M14 to stick with Seniora… the same way it was perhaps a mistake of the Syrians to renew for Lahhoud four years ago.

July 15th, 2008, 9:31 pm


Karim said:

Alex ,and how do you explain the reappointment of minister Elias El Murr by president Suleiman against the will of syrian regime ‘s allies in Lebanon ?There is no doubt that the syrian regime that tried to kill him was against this renewal in the lebanese ministry of defence.

July 15th, 2008, 10:20 pm


Alex said:


“There is no doubt that the syrian regime that tried to kill him”

I just hope you take another look at the meaning of words like “no doubt”

And I would like to remind you of the origin of many of the “no doubt” stories that you believe in:


July 15th, 2008, 10:44 pm


Karim said:

yes Alex ,there is no doubt that the regime was against El Murr ‘s reappointment,napolaoun and hezb wilayat faqih were against this renawal ,QN can confirm this fact.the no doubt is for reappointment not assassination attempt.but for me and may be for you ,most likely the regime was behind it…and now if you can answer the question instead of trying to divert it.

July 15th, 2008, 11:10 pm


why-discuss said:


Suleyman has shown unrelentless empathy for Hezbolah with a strong supportive position for the Resistance. His presence in the gigantic reception for the lebanese soldiers whose liberation is a 100% hezbollah effort is another sign of his gratitude toward Hezbollah and the Resistance.
Now, if he had chosen a openly pro-hezbollah or pro-syrian Defense ministry, he would have totally lost his credibility as an independant actor and would have been quickly vilified as a pro-syrian and partial. His move was extremely smart and he seems to be man with lots of political savvyness. Thank God for Suleyman..

July 16th, 2008, 1:25 am


Joshua said:

Inscription From 800 BC Shows the Origin of the Name ‘Syria’

A stone with a 2800 year old inscription sheds new light on today’s Assyrian identity and the relation between the terms Suroyo, Suryoyo and Asuroyo. According to Prof. Robert Rollinger the question is solved. “Suroye or Suryoye means nothing else than Assyrians”, he says to hujada.com. But Dr. Assad Sauma Assad has objections.

The stone with the important inscription was recently found in today’s southeastern Turkey, more precisely in Cineköy in the vicinity of the city Adana. The archaeologists say the inscription dates from circa 800 BC, making it astonishingly 2800 years old. The striking feature of this particular inscription is its bilingual form, as it is written both in Phoenician and Luwian. Phoenician is not spoken anymore but back then it was the language of the Phoenicians who were traders along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Luwian is another dead language that was spoken by people in Anatolia but which later was replaced by the Aramaic language around 500 BC.

In the inscription, successfully translated by archaeologists, a local king named Urriki from the area of Cineköy tells of his relationship with the Assyrian empire. In the Phoenician version of the inscription the word Assyria is written “Assur” but in the Luwian version the same word is written “Sur”. These two ways to write “Assyria” have caught the eye of the researchers as it might settle the much debated question about the names Assyria and Syria.

In the fourth issue of the highly acclaimed “Journal of Near Eastern Studies” from October 2006, Professor Robert Rollinger from the Leopold-Franzens-Universität in Innsbruck, Austria, argues that the Cineköy inscription delivers a definite answer to the question debated since the Middle Ages. Prof. Rollinger argues that the bilingual inscription proves beyond all reasonable doubt that the name Syria is only a shorter version of Assyria. Prof. Rollinger, who is considered an authority on the history, languages and cultures of the Orient, has only received positive feedback from other researchers regarding his conclusions. Positive feedback has also reached him from the Assyrian community who also has debated the question for a long-time now. The Professor has himself now put all questions aside.

“In my opinion this will put an end to all discussions, I am one hundred percent sure of it because it is written clearly in the inscription. We have the luck of finding the same text in two different languages, Phoenician on one side and Luwian on the other side, it is clearly a bilingual inscription. In the Phoenician version we have the word Assyria written in its original form with an ‘A’ in the beginning making it “Assur”. In the Luwian version we have the same word but without the initial A making it “Sur”. So the name Assyria had lost the initial ‘A’ in the Luwian version. Of course both “Assur” and “Sur” mean Assyria; the only difference is the usage of the shorter form of the word Assyria in the Luwian text, he told hujada.com

Prof. Rollinger states that the Greeks, who came into contact with the different cultures of the Middle East around 800 BC, must have adopted the word “Sur” and given it a Greek ending making it “Suria”, a word which has lived on until this day as “Syria”. The consequences of this discovery can turn out to be far reaching both for the researchers and for Assyrians, but Prof. Rollinger is reluctant to speculate on its influence for today’s situation.

“Let’s say it is a contribution clarifying where the name came from and finalizing the long discussion about the connection between the terms Assyria and Syria. What the Assyrian community is doing with this information, with this new result, I don’t know, we have to wait and see,” he commented.

What are then the consequences of Prof. Rollingers conclusions regarding today’s Assyrians?

For as long as we remember we have called ourselves in our western dialect Suroye or the version with the extra “y” spelled Suryoye. And in the eastern dialect we have called ourselves Suraye or Suryaye. Both versions of the name sound very similar with the name “Sur” found in the Cineköy inscription which itself means Assyria. Could it be that Suroye, Suryoye and Suraye, Suryaye all mean Assyrians?

Did the Assyrian movement draw the right conclusions when it pointed out this connection from the beginning?

Prof. Rollinger himself has no doubt about the connection.

“I totally agree that these names mean Assyrians. From an etymological point of view, that is where the name came from, I think it is totally clear. It is an abbreviation of the name Assyria, he says and adds:

“And of course, in this area of Cilicia and northern Syria, exactly in this time we are talking about (800 BC), there were other than Assyrians; many Arameans, Luwians and Greeks. And of course the Arameans also used this expression for designating Assyria”, says Rollinger and elaborates further:

“Generally speaking you have to distinguish between two aspects, one is the linguistic level, where the name comes from, and the other is the identity concerning culture, race, blood and things like that which are much more difficult and much more complicated to investigate.”

“But concerning the name, it is now totally clear”, says the eminent researcher.

But Dr. Assad Sauma Assad from the field of Syriology in the University of Stockholm is not as certain. Syriology is the common name for the study of the Syriac churches, the language and culture. Dr. Assad has been for a long time a strong advocate for a Syriac-Aramaic identity for our people, claiming we don’t have any Assyrian identity.

But at the same time Dr. Assad is today ready to accept the connection between the terms Suroye, Suryoye and Asuroye after reading the text of Prof. Rollinger.

“It might be one hundred percent true that Suroyo and Suryoyo come from the word Asuroyo (Assyrian), but there might also surface other evidence in the future”, he says and continuous by explaining that the theory long propagated by different persons on the origin of the word Suroye or Suryoye lacks historic evidence:

“All Syriac writers have throughout times unanimously explained that the word Suroye comes from a person that was called Sures or Syrus. But we haven’t found this Sures/Syrus in history, so it is nothing scientific, one can call it a legend or a myth. There are many such legends people have made up in order to explain things”, Dr. Assad reasons.

Dr. Assad points out at the same time that one has to differentiate between the name of a people and the ethnic identity of the people. According to Dr. Assad all Syriac Church fathers beginning from the third century AD. have associated themselves with the Arameans in their writings. One such example is the famous Saint Afram from the Third century who described the thinker Bardaysan as “Failasofo d’Oromoye” (The philosopher of the Arameans).

Dr. Assad emphasizes the fact that this was not only an occurrence in the Syriac Orthodox Church, but also in the Chaldean and Nestorian churches. This phenomenon has been explained by the Assyrian writer Johanon Qashisho who wrote that the deeply religious church fathers were greatly influenced by the negative description of the Assyrians in the Bible. The Old Testament was written by Jews who apprehended the Assyrians as enemies and therefore described the Assyrians in a biased and adversed way. That is the reason why many of our church fathers, strongly affected by the Bible, chose to deny their Assyrian origins by making excuses for their Assyrian name and associate themselves instead with the Arameans who are described in a significantly more positive way in the Bible. But Dr. Assad, who acknowledges that the word Suroye means Assyrians, maintains that we have to look beyond the linguistic aspect and understand that names can bear different meanings during different times in history.

“It is incorrect to translate the word Suroye or Suryoye to Assyrians today because it was such a long time ago that Suroyo evolved from Asuroyo. We must look at what the words mean during different periods. We cannot today use a word in the same way it was used 2600 years ago”, he maintains. But further questioning shows that Dr. Assad himself does believe that we have Assyrian blood, although he his keen on maintaining that it is only to a small extent.

“The Assyrians-Chaldeans-Syriacs in Iraq, especially in the north of Iraq have some Assyrian roots. The old Assyrians no longer exist, they were killed and those of them who survived were assimilated among the Arameans. There are no Assyrian people today, nor linguistically, culturally or ethnically. They started to call themselves Oromoye (Arameans) and with time forgot that they had Assyrian roots”, says Dr. Assad who designates himself in the mother tongue as “Suryoyo” (Assyrian).

One person who disagrees with Dr. Assad Sauma Assad is Zack Cherry, himself Assyrian and a doctoral student as well as teacher in the field of Assyriology from the University of Uppsala in Sweden. Assyriology is the compound name for the study of the different old cultures of the Near East. Zack Cherry, unlike Dr. Assad, agrees with the conclusions of Prof. Robert Rollinger regarding the connection between the words Syria and Assyria and that Suroye and Suryoye both mean nothing else than Assyrians.

“What I strongly want to emphasize is that our Assyrian forefathers did definitely not receive the notion Suraye or Suroye from a foreign people or language, to name for example the Luwian language, and started suddenly to call themselves Suraye or Suroye instead of Ashuraye. The reason for this change of pronunciation, that Ashuraye developed into Suraye and Suroye, is proven in the Aramean language which Assyrian kings, voluntarily and for strategic purposes, accepted and promoted to the level of an official language in the Assyrian empire since 900 BC, side by side their own and much older language which they called Ashuritu or Akadattu, meaning the Assyrian or the Akkadian language”, he says.

Zack Cherry, who is now a guest doctoral student during a year at the Altorientalisches Institut University in Leipzig, Germany, says that he has collected many evidences during his studies that support an Assyrian identity for our people and that he is going to publish those evidences in the nearest future. Cherry also maintains that there is today no serious research that denies our Assyrian origin but there are plenty of proof that confirms our Assyrian identity and origins, he says.

Consequently both Prof. Robert Rollinger and doctoral student Zack Cherry concur on the correct translation of the names Suroye, Suryoye or Suraye and Suryaye to be Assyrians.

Dr. Assad agrees only on the original linguistical meaning and has some objections towards a wider interpretation of the connection between the terms Suroye and Asuroye.

It is in itself laudable that Dr. Assad, despite his former posture in this question welcomes and respects new evidence in the question of our people’s identity. In order to reach consensus on this difficult and broad issue the example of Dr. Assad should be followed and accept new evidences instead of rejecting everything that does not fit in one’s own Assyrian or Syriac agenda. Our national father Naum Faik had no problems with recognizing his Aramaic or Assyrian roots. One wonders why it has to be so difficult for us today to embrace and be proud of representing the Aramaic and Assyrian, two of the world’s oldest civilizations.

By Afram Barryakoub in Sweden

Translation to English by Munir Gultekin.

© 2008, Assyrian International News Agency.

July 16th, 2008, 2:10 am


ugarit said:

Dr. Landis said: “The striking feature of this particular inscription is its bilingual form, as it is written both in Phoenician and Luwian.”

Here’s another confusion the Greeks created. Phoenician is Canaanite.

July 16th, 2008, 2:01 pm


alex_no said:

Peter Harling is French, that is why he is writing an analysis talking up the Christian position in Lebanon. I thought it unconvincing.

July 16th, 2008, 5:34 pm


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