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Lebanon's Crisis Reflects Regional Strife

  • Elizabeth Arrott

The resignation last week of Lebanon's prime minister highlights the long-standing political tensions in the multi-faith government. The perils of sectarian politics is being played out with increasing intensity across the region.

In the two years since the conflict in Syria began, the fragile sectarian mix in neighboring Lebanon has become only more tense. In the northern city Tripoli, supporters of Syria's Alawite President Bashar al-Assad have yet again fought deadly street battles with Sunni supporters of Syria's rebels.

The latest fighting follows the resignation of Lebanon's consensus prime minister, who had tried to hold together a government of Assad-backing Hezbollah with Sunni politicians. Najib Mikati stepped down nominally over domestic issues, but he warned of the “regional fires” touching Lebanon “with their flames.”

The sectarian nature of the war next door has prompted worries Syria could fragment completely along sectarian lines.

“I can see in front of me some possibility of Syria splitting into Alawi country, [with the] capital Latakiya in the western part of Syria; the northern part the Kurds; and then the rest of Syria for the rest of Sunnis, Druze and everybody else,” said former Egyptian intelligence officer and regional security expert Sameh Saif al Yazal.

While some dismiss the idea as a worst-case scenario, forces tearing apart Syria reflect the sectarian actors with influence in Lebanon as well -- in particular Iran with its backing of both the Assad government and Hezbollah.

Christian Donath, a professor at the American University in Cairo, says Iran's regional reach has prompted other nations of the Persian Gulf to get involved.

“The Qataris and the Saudis both share concerns over Iranian power and I think they are doing what they can to stem what they see as a spreading tide of Iranian and Shia influence," he said.

But some argue the rise of Sunni Islamists in the past two years may have prompted Iran's leaders to see a different kind of foreign influence at play.

“I think one of the things they understand is the West wants -- that the Arab Spring turns into a sea of Sunni regimes against Iran,” said political sociologist Said Sadek.

While suspicions abound, and while Syria sinks into what analysts call a proxy war for foreign powers with sectarian agendas, multi-faith Lebanon is trying to step back from the brink.
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