A Spasm of Violence: How Lebanon Is Threatened by Syria's Rebellion

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Joseph Eid / Reuters

Mourners carry the body of Lebanese Sunni Muslim cleric Ahmad Abdel Wahed as the funeral convoy arrives to Amar al-Bakawat at the entrance of his hometown of al-Bireh, north of the capital Beirut on May 21, 2012. Wahed was shot dead by army troops when his convoy failed to stop at a checkpoint in the northern Lebanese town of Koueikhat.

An uneasy, fragile calm returned to the Lebanese capital Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli on Monday, a day after the worst clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian Lebanese factions since 2008. The violence erupted after the killing of a prominent anti-Syrian Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Abdel Wahed, and an associate. The pair were shot dead by soldiers in the northern Lebanese region of Akkar after their convoy allegedly failed to stop at a checkpoint. And while the politics involved are local and sometimes impenetrable, the consequences are much broader. They illustrate how this tiny country, wedged between Israel and Syria, continues to be captive to its geography.

The sheikh's death was just the latest incident to tap into the deeply seated frustrations of the largely anti-Syrian Lebanese Sunni community, and Sunni reaction to the killings was immediate and predictable. Protests erupted and roads, initially in the north but then later in other parts of the country, were closed with burning tires. In an impoverished Sunni section of Beirut heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades were used in overnight clashes.

Lebanon's vibrant, often violent domestic politics have been shaped by events taking place in its larger neighbors, and it has been a stage for their proxy wars, courtesy of sectarian leaders who have often been willing pawns to foreign meddling. It is not surprising that elements of Syria's 15-month conflict have come to Lebanon. But it is troubling nonetheless.

Lebanon has been divided along pro- and anti-Syrian lines since at least 2005, when Sunni leader and former premier Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a blast his supporters blamed on Syria and its local allies. The killing and the domestic and international outrage it provoked propelled Damascus to withdraw its military from Lebanon that year, ending a 29-year presence. In the years since, the gulf between the two Lebanese camps has widened. Like so many things here, it is sharply sectarian. On one side are the Shi'ite parties of Hizballah and Amal, and their Christian allies who support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. On the other is an anti-Assad coalition of Sunnis, Druze and rival Christians.

The stage has long been set for a conflagration. There was a brief flare-up in May 2008, when Hizballah, enraged by a decision by the anti-Syrian government of the day to uproot its independent military communications network, overran parts of the Lebanese capital in a potent display of military prowess that left its overpowered Sunni rivals seething and humiliated. For many Sunnis, the scars of 2008 are still raw.

A little over a week ago, politics once again returned to the streets, when running gunbattles erupted in parts of Tripoli between residents of the conservative anti-Syrian Salafi neighborhood of Bab al-Tebbane, and the adjacent pro-Syrian Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen. (Fittingly, the street dividing them is called Syria Street.) Such local enmities and conflicts are often unalarming in a national sense, especially since there have often been deadly clashes between the two Tripoli neighborhoods. But this time, things began to add up.

The trigger for the violence was the arrest of a little-known Sunni Islamist called Shadi Mawlawi. Mawlawi, who was not a wanted man, was at a social services center run by a local anti-Syrian politician, having been lured there by an element of the security forces perceived as sympathetic to Hizballah. He has now been charged with belonging to a terrorist organization, although his supporters say he was nabbed because he helps Syrian refugees fleeing to Lebanon. Mawlawi's arrest brought the Sunni community to a near tipping point. It was the latest in a list of grievances and perceived humiliations borne by the group, specifically its northern Salafists. The charge of belonging to a terrorist organization was particularly bitter, given that the community is still protesting the five-year detention of some Islamists who have been held without charge on suspicion of belonging to extremist groups. There are economic reasons for the anger as well. Northern Lebanon in general, and Tripoli in particular, are impoverished, long-neglected areas that have benefited little from economic development in the rest of the country. The tipping point came with the sheikh's death on Sunday, when many Sunnis around the country took up arms in protest.

Shocked by the rapid deterioration of the security situation in the past few weeks, some Lebanese fear a replay of the chaos of the early 1970s that led to the civil war. Back then, the country was similarly polarized over one of its neighbors. It was split over the issue of Palestine, or more specifically, the influx of guerrilla groups expelled from Jordan during the bloody 1970s Black September crackdown. Leftist, pan-Arab, mainly Muslim parties in Lebanon supported the Palestinian guerrillas in their fight against Israel. Right-wing, mainly Christian nationalists did not. The ensuing conflicts contributed to a civil war that took 15 years to end.

There's another worrying similarity. For the first time in a long time, the neutrality of the Lebanese army has been questioned. The military, considered one of the few state institutions which is at least superficially above the sectarian fray, was accused by some Salafists of siding with the Alawites during the fighting between Bab al-Tebbane and Jabal Mohsen. That view was cemented by the death of Sheikh Abdel Wahed. It's a serious charge, given that the institution's unity depends on its neutrality.

The army was quick to offer its condolences for the "regrettable" incident and promised a thorough investigation. Still, a group of clerics from Akkar ominously threatened to form a "Free Lebanese Army," a sentiment recalling the dark days of the civil war when the army split along sectarian lines. Some army units withdrew from Akkar on Sunday following the shooting, in a bid to ease tensions.

Prominent anti-Syrians like Sunni leader Saad Hariri, son of the slain former premier, warned against a confrontation between the army and the people. "We do not blame the Lebanese army as a whole for the murder, because the army is the national military institution by which the people of Akkar have always stood," he said in a statement. "But it is clear that some people involved in this murder want to use the institution and its symbol to import the crisis of the Syrian regime with its people and the whole world, to Lebanon, in a desperate attempt to save it from its unavoidable end."

Religious and political leaders from across the political divide have urged calm. Still, questions remain about when and why the soldiers opened fire. Did the sheikh's convoy fail to stop, or as one of his driver's said, was it turning around after the sheikh had been humiliated by an officer?

The incident has increased pressure on Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni from Tripoli, who must tread a fine line between his government (which is dominated by Hizballah and its allies) and his hometown constituency. The government's policy of "dissociation" from the Syrian crisis is looking increasingly untenable. It survived Syrian infringements of Lebanese sovereignty — the government barely blinked during a handful of incursions by Syrian forces and incidents of gunfire into Lebanese territory despite the fact that several Lebanese were killed — but this may be more difficult to contain.

It's a fragile, easily combustible situation, made more so by the influx of Syrian refugees. The figure is at least 24,000 — and climbing. The first waves of mainly Sunni Syrians crossed into the northern Lebanese, largely Sunni and fiercely anti-Syrian region of Wadi Khaled. Many had blood ties to the region, and were housed in relatives' homes, in schools and in mosques. In recent months, a large number of Syrian refugees have entered the Bekaa, which is more politically and religiously diverse. Parts of it, like the area around Baalbek-Hermel, are Hizballah strongholds. There are acute housing shortages for refugees in the region, the UNHCR says, but neither the UN body nor other NGOs want to house Syrians in tents, for humanitarian reasons.

Hizballah, too, does not want Lebanon to establish refugee camps like those in Turkey, but theirs is a very different calculation: "We cannot accept refugee camps for Syrians in Lebanon because any camp... will become a military pocket that will be used as a launchpad against Syria and then against Lebanon," Hizballah's deputy secretary-general Naim Qassem said in March, according to the Beirut-based Daily Star. In other words, Hizballah does not want a situation akin to that in the early 1970s, when Palestinian guerrilla groups set up bases (not to be confused with Palestinian refugee camps) in southern Lebanon and parts of the Bekaa to launch attacks against Israel from Lebanon. Still, some aid workers say that the establishment of camps is inevitable, given the rising number of refugees. The issue is already a domestic political football, and risks further enflaming existing tensions.

As night fell Monday, there were reports of new roads being closed with burning tires even as others were reopened. Nevertheless, the Lebanese are used to volatility. They are remarkably adept at dusting off their weapons at the slightest provocation, racing to the brink of what seems like a new civil conflict, only to pull away from it just as suddenly. The next few days will determine if recent events are just another spasm of violence, or something more.