Syria’s civil war was doomed from the very beginning to spill intoLebanon. Trouble started last year shortly after peaceful demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad’s regime turned violent, and it started again last week when sectarian clashes ripped through the northern city ofTripoli, the second-largest inLebanonafterBeirut, and turned parts of it into a war zone.
Sunni militiamen from Tripoli’s neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh are slugging it out again with militants from the adjacent Alawite stronghold of Jabal Mohsen. They have transformed their corner of Lebanoninto a mirror of the Syrian war, in which Sunni rebels are waging pitched battles with the Alawite-dominated military and government. As of Wednesday, the death toll in Tripoli was twelve, and a few more were killed yesterday. More than a hundred have been wounded.
Tensions are also increasing between Lebanon’s Sunnis, who support the Syrian uprising, and Lebanon’s Shias, who support the Assad regime and Hezbollah. Syrian rebels recently kidnapped a man they say is a Hezbollah member; his Lebanese clan members ran around southern Beirutwith AK-47s and ski masks and kidnapped almost two dozen Syrian Sunnis and even a Turkish citizen in Lebanon.
Some reporters are describing the violence as some of the worst since the Lebanese civil war that raged from 1975-1990 — so far a bit of an exaggeration, with numbers still insignificant compared to the thousands killed, tortured, and maimed next-door inSyria. But the numbers could easily mushroom, transforming the entire Lebanese political scene for the worse.
ASSAD’S OCCUPATION ofLebanonwas terminated seven years ago by the Beirut Spring, but the two countries still function to an extent as a single political unit.Syriamay no longer have its smaller neighbor under direct military rule, but it has been deliberately exporting its violence, dysfunction, and terrorism since the 1970s. Its hegemony there was partially restored when Hezbollah invadedBeirutin 2008, forcing anti-Syrian parties to surrender much of their power at gunpoint.
Even if Assad had no interest in mucking around inBeirut’s internal affairs — even ifLebanonwere entirely free of Syrian influence — we should still expect to see the conflict spill over. The Lebanese could not build a firewall even if the Syrians wanted to help them – but definitely not while terrified Syrian refugees are holing up in the county, and not when Hezbollah has a vested interest in keeping its patron and armorer in charge inDamascus, and not with Sunnis and Alawites living cheek-by-jowl in the north.
Lebanon, unlike most Arab countries, has a weak central government. The Lebanese designed it that way on purpose so that it would be nearly impossible for anyone to rule as a strongman; and as the country is more or less evenly divided between Christians, Sunnis, and Shias, so that no single sectarian community could easily take control over the others.
The problem, of course, is that weak central government combined with sectarian centrifugal force constantly threaten to rip the country apart. As the army is just as riven by political sectarianism as the rest of the country, when civil conflict breaks out, the army does a terrible job. Its leadership does not dare take sides lest the officers and enlisted men under their command splinter apart into rival militias as they did during the civil war. Further, the Syrian regime left pieces of itself behind when it withdrew fromLebanonin the spring of 2005. Many of the army’s senior officers were promoted and appointed byDamascus; they still have their jobs and their loyalties, at least for now.
So while the violence inLebanonis at the moment contained, it is barely contained. The real danger here is not that people will be kidnapped and killed by the dozen in isolated neighborhoods. The real danger is that if the situation does not calm down and stay down, the normally placid Sunni community will become increasingly radical.
For years the overwhelming majority ofLebanon’s Sunnis have thrown their support behind the Future Movement, the liberal, capitalist, and pro-peace party of Rafik and Saad Hariri. The Muslim Brotherhood hardly gets any more votes inLebanonthan it would in theUnited States. But conservative Sunnis are only willing to support moderates like the Hariris when they feel safe. If they feel physically threatened by Alawite militias, Hezbollah, or anyone else for too long, many will feel they have little choice but to back radical Sunni militias if no one else will protect them.
Extremist Sunnis could eventually ruin what began as a peaceful movement for reform and change in Assad’s Syria. It would be even more tragic if they did the same thing inLebanonafter the Beirut Spring showed so much promise.
Visit the Goldstone Institute, where this article originally appeared.
About the Author: Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor at World Affairs and City Journal and is the prize-winning author of Where the West Ends and The Road to Fatima Gate.
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