News / Middle East

Lebanese Sectarian Clashes Spark Syria Spillover Fears

Soldiers deployed at Syria street, which divides Sunni and Alawite areas of Tripoli, Lebanon, June 3, 2012.
Soldiers deployed at Syria street, which divides Sunni and Alawite areas of Tripoli, Lebanon, June 3, 2012.
Scott Bobb
TRIPOLI, Lebanon - Sporadic sectarian clashes between two neighborhoods in Lebanon's second largest city, Tripoli, have reminded Lebanese of the brutal civil war in the 1970s and '80s which divided Lebanon along sectarian lines and is still a source of tensions.

Overnight gun battles on two recent occasions killed 25 people in Tripoli and wounded more than 60. The violence spread to Beirut where two people were killed in one incident.

The clashes in Beirut were sparked by the killing of a Sunni cleric who reportedly was active in supporting rebels battling the government of President Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria. The violence in Tripoli was brought on in part by the arrest of an activist suspected of sending weapons to the rebels.

Many Lebanese Sunni Muslims sympathize with the 15 month-old uprising led by Syria's majority Sunnis. On the other hand, Lebanese of the Shi'ite branch of Islam and its Alawite offshoot support the Syrian government.
Lebanese Sunnis are also angry about cross-border incursions by Syrian troops. They accuse the Syrian forces of kidnapping and shooting Lebanese whom they suspect of aiding the Syrian rebels.

Weekly protests
They have been holding weekly demonstrations in Tripoli to protest what they say is support by the Lebanese government for the Assad government.
Electrician Hussein Ali, who attended a recent rally, says there have traditionally been problems between Shi'ites, Alawites and Sunnis. But, he adds, there are people from outside trying to make trouble.

A kilometer away, on the other side of a battle line marked by bullet-pocked buildings and burnt-out apartments, lies a neighborhood of Tripoli's much smaller Alawite community.

Posters of Assad and his father, the late Hafez al-Assad, are plastered on walls along the narrow streets.

Community leader Ali Fouda says some Sunnis, especially Islamist militants, are using the conflict in Syria to destabilize northern Lebanon. He said some people in Lebanon consider what's happening in Syria to be their battle.

"We wonder why they are interfering in Syria's affairs," he said.

The Syrian rebels are reported to be receiving arms from supporters in Lebanon and other Arab countries. The Syrian government is reportedly receiving arms too from its allies Iran and Russia and through the Lebanese militant faction, Hezbollah.

The head of the International Affairs Institute of the American University of Beirut, Rami Khouri, says there have always been sectarian links between Syria and Lebanon.

"The ripples are felt mostly in the Tripoli area in the north, because there you have an Alawite community, and you have some strong Sunni-Salafi communities or anti-Syrian regime [communities]," he said. "And we've had some shootings but very, very short-lived."

The U.N. and Arab League Special Envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, visited the region recently and expressed fears of the Syrian conflict spreading.

"The crisis is having a regional spill-over in the form of tensions and incidents across the borders, abductions of nationals and foreigners and refugee flows to neighboring states. I felt the concerns of Syria's immediate neighbors very acutely in my consultations in recent days," he said.

Arms trafficking
The head of Human Rights Watch here, Nadim Houry, says the Lebanese government is trying to restrict arms trafficking and has an official policy of neutrality.

"But frankly it's a fig leaf because the Lebanese state or government is not unitary," he said. "And underneath that statement you've got different, big Lebanese political groups on either side, not neutral at all."
Northern Lebanon is a poor region with a history of smuggling. Sunnis there feel marginalized socially and economically, Houry said.
"There is now a mixing of all these factors and a radicalization of this community that is hearing horrible stories of what's happening in Syria and sometimes hear parts of the Lebanese government supporting the Syrian government," Houry said.
Still, American University of Beirut Professor Hillal Khashem does not believe the Syria fallout will cause Lebanon to explode.
"I don't expect the security situation to reach an alarming level because the various factions in the Lebanese political system understand the implications of insecurity and instability," he said.

Khashem said Lebanese leaders remember the civil war and respond quickly to any incident. The government has sent military reinforcements to Tripoli since the recent clashes.

Analysts also note that Russia and China refuse to support Western-led efforts to remove Assad. As a result, they say the Syrian conflict is aggravating not only regional tensions but global ones as well.

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