BEIRUT — Lebanon’s army is trying to quell deadly clashes between Lebanese supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. One soldier died yesterday (Oct 28) and several were wounded in the northern city of Tripoli as army units deployed in a bid to curb a week of fighting between warring sectarian neighborhoods.
The seven days of clashes in Lebanon’s second largest city have left at least 17 dead and more than 100 wounded, say government officials. The fighting is prompting worries once again that spillover violence from the civil war raging in neighboring Syria will trigger widespread sectarian conflict in Lebanon.
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Miqati sought to reassure Lebanese on Tuesday (Oct. 29) saying the country’s security forces have received “clear orders to restore calm and impose security in Tripoli.”
The fighting the past week between residents of Bab al-Tebbaneh, an Alawi neighborhood that supports Assad, and Sunni Muslims in the district of Jabal Mohsen is the worst Syrian-related gun battle seen in Lebanon in weeks.
The adjacent neighborhoods have had a long history of conflict that stretches back to the 1975 Lebanese civil war.
Politicians pledge military will restore order
The direct firing on Lebanese army units appears to have particularly alarmed the country’s politicians.
Prime Minister Miqati told reporters Lebanese army commanders have been assured that there is “political cover for them to impose security and that more military reinforcements will be sent to Tripoli.”
In June when gunmen loyal to a hardline Sunni Muslim cleric fired on Lebanese soldiers in the southern city of Sidon – the worst fighting in that city since 2008 -- the response was firm and an army crackdown was endorsed by the main political leaders of the country’s various sectarian factions.
Miqati, who heads a fragile power-sharing caretaker government, says the army command has “a comprehensive plan consisting of imposing more than one security cordon, not only on the demarcation line between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tebbaneh, but also in depth in order to prevent new clashes.”
The fighting in Tripoli broke out last week after a Lebanese television station broadcast an interview with Assad, in which he said the time is not ripe for peace talks to resolve the civil war in Syria.
Lebanon is deeply divided over the Syrian conflict next door. The majority of Sunnis support the rebellion, while Shia and adherents of Alawi Islam, a Shia offshoot, back Assad. Lebanese Sunnis have fought alongside rebels in Syria and helped with arms supplies and ferrying the wounded to privately funded hospitals in Lebanon.
The sectarian nature of the Syrian civil war and the increasing military role in it of the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah, which has sent fighters to assist Assad, is aggravating historical divisions between Lebanese Sunni Muslims and Shia, according to author and commentator Michael Young.
“The fact that today Hezbollah is intervening on the side of the Syrian regime has really only exacerbated a problem that has been there for several years,” he says.
Foreign jihadists raise tensions
Ali Mohammed Fadlallah, a spokesman for the predominantly Alawi Arab Democratic Party, blames the fighting in Tripoli on the “presence of foreign Jihadists in Lebanon,” a consequence of the civil war in Syria, which he says is attracting foreign fighters to Lebanon.
The dangers for Lebanon are mounting fast. Jihadists affiliated with al Qaeda have been infiltrating Lebanon and forming alliances with radical Sunni groups, say Lebanese army sources. Much of their activity has been focused on recruiting for the war in Syria but they are a destabilizing factor.
Retired Lebanese army general Hisham Jaber estimates there are more than 5000 foreign jihadists using Lebanon as a base. He believes the situation can be contained and that neither Hezbollah nor Sunni militants want a full-scale conflict on Lebanese soil while Lebanon is useful as a logistical base for both sides in Syria. But he warned that might not always be the case.
“If the situation in Syria changes in a dramatic way. In this case it will move directly to Lebanon and we will lose control,” he says.