Syria’s civil war was doomed from the very beginning to spill into Lebanon. 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 of Tripoli, the second-largest in Lebanon after Beirut, and turned parts of it into a war zone.
Sunni militiamen from the 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 Lebanon into 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 Beirut with 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 in Syria. But the numbers could easily mushroom, transforming the entire Lebanese political scene for the worse.
Assad’s occupation of Lebanon was terminated seven years ago by the Beirut Spring, but the two countries still function to an extent as a single political unit. Syria may 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 invaded Beirut in 2008, forcing anti-Syrian parties to surrender much of their power at gunpoint.
Even if Assad had no interest in mucking around in Beirut’s internal affairs, however — even if Lebanon were 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 in Damascus, 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 from Lebanon in the spring of 2005. Many of the army’s senior officers were promoted and appointed by Damascus; they still have their jobs and their loyalties, at least for now.
So while the violence in Lebanon is 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 of Lebanon’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 in Lebanon than it would in the United 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 in Lebanon after the Beirut Spring showed so much promise.