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Lebanon Fights for Calm as Syria War Rages

  • Elizabeth Arrott

A memorial poster of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, who was assassinated Friday, hangs near the spot Friday's car bomb attack that killed Al-Hassan, in the Achrafiye district of Beirut, Lebanon, October 23, 2012.

A memorial poster of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, who was assassinated Friday, hangs near the spot Friday's car bomb attack that killed Al-Hassan, in the Achrafiye district of Beirut, Lebanon, October 23, 2012.

Lebanese politicians and their allies in the West are urging calm after the killing of an intelligence chief set off sectarian violence and fears the nation could be further dragged into the conflict in neighboring Syria. Some political observers believe despite the tensions, Lebanon should be able to weather the current storm.

The killing of Wissam al Hassan last Friday threatened to unleash the kind of religious divides that Lebanon has known only too well, and that the increasingly sectarian war next door in Syria have made worse.

A Sunni Muslim, al Hassan was seen as an effective challenge to the meddling influence of Syria's largely Alawite government. An investigation into the bombing that took his life is ongoing, but many on the anti-Syrian side were quick to suspect Damascus, or its Lebanese Shi'ite ally, Hezbollah.

Angry youths took to the streets in violent protest over the killing.

Syria's war has tested the fragile make-up of multi-confessional Lebanese politics, pitting the pro-Syrian government of the March 8 Movement against the anti-Syrian opposition of the March 14 coalition.

On a street level, that translates roughly as Shi'ite versus Sunni.

"There are spontaneous outbursts of violence," said Hilal Khashan, who teaches politics at the American University of Beirut. "There is a great deal of frustration among Lebanese Sunnis, but the Lebanese Army is clamping down."

Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, says that while the Syrian conflict has made the situation in Lebanon more tense, battle lines between supporters and opponents of Syrian influence stretch far back, to unsolved assassinations of the last decade and the near 30-year occupation of Lebanon by its neighbor.

But Salem believes the bombing, in which Damascus denies involvement, may not have wider repercussions.

“I think if it were Syria, the objective was not to destabilize Lebanon," he said. "The objective was simply to remove a very effective security chief in Lebanon who was rather actually anti-Syrian, was very close to the anti-Syrian coalition in Lebanon and who had many investigations and arrests against Syrian interests in Lebanon.”

Moreover, he notes, Lebanon's current Syria-friendly, Hezbollah-dominated government suits the needs of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

Still, the potential for division and a possible political vacuum prompted Lebanon's allies to urge calm.

“I encourage all political leaders to work towards constructive solutions to the main challenges that face Lebanon today," said European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who visited Beirut Tuesday. "At such times, the importance of robust state institutions that continue to ensure security and provide services cannot be understated.”

But instability lingers, fueled by a reversal of U.S. and European officials' initial calls for political continuity after the bombing, even as their allies in Lebanon were calling for the government to step down.

Western officials now back the idea of a possible phased transition.

While Lebanon's crisis remains far from over, some, like the Carnegie Center's Salem, find it remarkable the country hasn't been dragged further than it has into Syria's war. He says while some Sunni Lebanese do support Sunni Syrian rebels, and Hezbollah aids Syria's government, involvement is limited.

"It has come as a welcome surprise that Lebanon has been able to maintain its stability for so long. And the past weekend was a real challenge to the stability, but I think Lebanon has passed that challenge," he said.

But that remains to be seen. Tensions continue to run high, for despite Lebanese wishes, they remain in the shadow of Syria and its continuing conflict.

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