Syria conflict destabilizing Lebanon (WASHINGTON TIMES) By Andrew Brossone - Special to The Washington Times BEIRUT, LEBANON 05/15/12)
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BEIRUT — Syria’s conflict is increasing instability in Lebanon, which
already is grappling with sectarian tensions, a crumbling economy and
a weak, divided government, even as it has so far avoided the popular
uprisings of its Middle East neighbors.
“The entire region is destabilized,” said Bassem Chit, a Lebanese
activist in Beirut.
Two rival neighborhoods in the tense northern city of Tripoli were on
lockdown amid new sectarian clashes spilling over from the conflict
in Syria. The violence broke out over the weekend after Lebanese
security forces tried to arrest a leading Sunni Islamist on charges
of belonging to a terrorist organization.
Sunni Lebanese say they are being targeted for the help they have
been giving co-religionists fleeing the oppression in Syria. Their
neighborhood abuts a district heavily populated with Alawites, the
sect to which Syrian President Bashar Assad belongs.
With two more deaths reported in Tripoli Monday, the toll from the
recent fighting now has reached five dead and nearly 50 wounded, with
shops, schools and businesses shuttered, according to a report by
Politics in Lebanon have long been a delicate balancing act. The
Lebanese are divided into 18 different religious-ethnic groups who
frequently shift alliances but hold tight to their power in a system
designed to maintain the status quo.
These disparate groups break down into two factions depending on
their feelings toward Mr. Assad.
The current government, controlled by the March 8th coalition, led by
the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah, has studiously avoided any
conflict with Syria.
Last month, for example, Lebanese officials said they seized
shipments of heavy arms intended for the Syrian opposition in an
attempt to comply with the Syrian regime’s request for tighter border
Parts of the country, in particular the north, which includes the
port city of Tripoli near the Syrian border, is predominantly
populated by Sunni Muslims firmly opposed to Mr. Assad.
The Sunni Future Party is the backbone of the opposition March 14th
coalition, formed in 2005 to push for the removal of the Syrian
military, which at the time had occupied the country for more than 20
Since the violence in Syria escalated late last year, the Lebanese
Sunni Muslim groups in the border region have been helping the 10,000
officially registered Syrian refugees as well as the opposition in
their attempt to oust Mr. Assad.
There also have been regular protests against the Syrian regime there.
Many Lebanese worry that if the conflict in Syria breaks down on
sectarian lines of Sunni versus Shia, the violence could spread into
Lebanon, where such tensions are always just beneath the surface.
So far, little violence has crossed the border into Lebanon or
erupted between supporters and opponents of Mr. Assad.
However, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel recently warned of
deteriorating security inside the country, which he attributed mainly
to the crisis next door.
“I pray that the situation in Syria gets solved, so we know where we
are going,” he told the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar. “Right now, we do
The Lebanese government is also coming under pressure from U.S.
officials to be more supportive of the Syrian opposition.
Last week, Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near
Eastern affairs, met with Walid Jumblatt, a member of parliament and
leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, a partner in the ruling
Mr. Jumblatt has vocally supported the Syrian uprising. If he
switched sides from the ruling coalition to the Sunni-backed March 14
movement, the current government would lack a majority and collapse.
That could drive Hezbollah supporters out to the streets and reignite
sectarian conflict, analysts say.
Sectarianism and fear
With daily reminders of the 1975-1990 civil war in the form of
posters and monuments on the streets of Beirut and elsewhere, the
current situation has local residents on edge.
“A lot of people in Lebanon are afraid of violence,” said Mr. Chit,
who is a member of the Socialist Forum. “They have good reason to be.
We had a civil war.”
Mr. Chit said that sectarianism and fear are the biggest barriers to
mobilizing Lebanese, even as they suffer from inflation, stagnant
wages and poor utility services.
“The people have lost complete hope in the government or in
politicians to do anything concrete or significant to improve the
quality of life for citizens,” said Nassib Ghobril, the head of
research for Byblos Bank. “But they care because they see their bank
accounts depleted and the cost of living increased.”
There is no shortage of Lebanese willing to complain about the long
list of ills in the country, the corruption of politicians and fears
of a return to civil war.
On television and in conversation, Lebanese often repeat an
expression, “al-balad akak afrit,” roughly translated “the country is
“Whenever [the Lebanese] are confronted with a problem, they find
personal solutions to it. They don’t find collective solutions to
it,” said Khilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the
American University of Beirut.
“People don’t create a force to confront the government. That’s why
we are an easy people to govern.”
But the increasingly unstable situation has local residents and U.N.
“What we see around the region is a dance of death at the brink of
the abyss of war,” said Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N. special envoy to
the Middle East, after briefing the U.N. Security Council last week.
“If you look at the situation in Syria, which is maybe the most
likely to spill over, then in a way it is reminiscent of the
situation in Lebanon and its neighbors in the 1970s.
“This is what I fear.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports. (© 2012 The
Washington Times, LLC. 05/15/12)
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