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Syrian Crisis Will Not Plunge Lebanon into Chaos, Analysts Say

  • Margaret Besheer

A woman is seen from a hole in her home's wall, caused by clashes between Sunni Muslims and Alawites in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, August 27, 2012.

A woman is seen from a hole in her home's wall, caused by clashes between Sunni Muslims and Alawites in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, August 27, 2012.

BEIRUT — Fears continue to grow that Syria's conflict will spill into neighboring Lebanon, where the government has long been divided into pro- and anti-Assad camps. Last week both the United States and the United Nations expressed concern about growing instability in Lebanon, but analysts said Syria's fragile neighbor is unlikely to be dragged deeply into the conflict.

Last week, the United Nations' new political chief, Jeffrey Feltman, told the Security Council that as Syria continues to deteriorate, the situation in Lebanon is becoming more precarious.

"Cross-border shelling continues in north and eastern Lebanon causing several injuries," said Feltman."Tensions over domestic and security concerns remain high through the country and are easily exacerbated by developments in Syria."

Lebanon also has experienced a recent rash of retaliatory kidnappings of dozens of Syrian nationals as well as a Turkish businessman by a prominent Shi'ite clan in Beirut.

Add to this the arrest of a Christian former government minister with close ties to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

Former Lebanese PM Michel Samaha attends a funeral in Beirut, March 21, 2005.

Former Lebanese PM Michel Samaha attends a funeral in Beirut, March 21, 2005.

Michel Samaha was charged this month with transporting explosives with the alleged aim of blowing up the Maronite Christian patriarch during a visit to a Sunni Muslim area - an act that could have ignited a Sunni-Christian war.

But analysts here said a combination of factors is likely to spare this nation of four million people from a repeat of the horrors it experienced in the 1970s and 1980s during its own civil war.

Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center, said two factors are likely to keep Lebanon from sliding back into conflict. First, its various religious groups and communities all have a stake in the government. "Secondly," he added, "none of the major communities want to have a civil war."

"We have had a civil war and we have a lot of immunity to just stumbling into one. We, meaning all the major communities, really do not want to have a civil war," Salem said. "A couple of sparks do not a civil war make. Sparks will be sparks, brush fires, problems, crises. I think those two elements will see us through the more dangerous risks we might have faced otherwise."

Imad Salamey, a political scientist at the Lebanese American University, said the quick implementation of international resolutions on Syria could also help assure Lebanon's stability.

"Because the longer this conflict in Syria is dragged on, the more extremists will be attracted into this conflict, the more sectarian orientation this conflict will take on, and, therefore, it will become easier to be expanded and to spill over to other countries," he said.

In addition to the alleged plot to stir up Sunni-Christian conflict, Sunnis and Alawites in the northern city of Tripoli have engaged in deadly clashes during the past few weeks, and that is likely to continue.

One of Lebanon's most powerful political players is the Shi'ite militia and political movement Hezbollah, which dominates the current government. Hezbollah's leaders have been carefully watching events in Syria and refraining from provocative acts at home or towards the group's arch-enemy, Israel.

Salamey said that may be because, although Hezbollah and Syria are close allies, in this case, the interests of the two are not the same.

"The decline of Syrian hegemony and the decline of the strategic importance of Syria, with respect to other international and regional players such as Russia and Iran, may be subsidized by a growing importance of parties like Hezbollah," Salamey said. "So Hezbollah wants to preserve that, [it] doesn't want to be dragged into a domestic conflict and does not want necessarily to follow suit with whatever the Syrians command it to do."

As President Assad struggles to keep control of his own government, the experts say he also is becoming more desperate to hang on to influence in Lebanon, which Syrian troops occupied for 30 years, only leaving in 2005. But as his influence slips, they say, Mr. Assad's ability to drag this country down with his regime is not likely to succeed.