Syria violence shakes Lebanon´s fragile stability (REUTERS) By Dominic Evans BEIRUT, LEBANON 05/23/12 9:26am EDT)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - Gunmen clash in deadly street battles, protesters block
roads with burning tires and opposition politicians demand the prime
minister´s downfall, denouncing the army as an agent of a foreign
Fragile Lebanon´s sectarian tensions, which festered for two decades
since the end of its ruinous civil war, have been re-ignited by the
turmoil in powerful neighbor Syria and threaten to plunge the country
into a sustained period of unrest.
In the northern city of Tripoli, where Sunni Muslims strongly support
the 14-month uprising against Syria´s President Bashar al-Assad, nine
people were killed in clashes last week triggered by the arrest of an
The violence spread to the capital on Monday when Sunni gunmen fought
street battles in a Beirut neighborhood following the killing of a
Sunni cleric, also opposed to Assad, by Lebanese soldiers at an army
checkpoint in the northern Akkar province.
On Tuesday, angry Shi´ites blocked roads in southern Beirut in
protest against the abduction in northern Syria of a dozen Lebanese
Shi´ites by rebels from the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim insurgency
"We are entering a phase of protracted instability in Lebanon. There
is no direct way in which these events will be fully contained," said
Eurasia Group analyst Ayham Kamel.
The Syrian uprising forced Lebanon´s Prime Minister Najib Mikati into
a near-impossible balancing act between diehard supporters and
opponents of Assad in a country which was long dominated by Syrian
Mikati himself embodies some of the conflicting loyalties. He is a
Sunni Muslim from Tripoli, but has close ties with authorities in
Damascus and only came to power last year after Shi´ite Hezbollah and
its Christian allies toppled Lebanon´s unity government, headed by
Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri.
He has promoted a policy of "disassociation" from Syria´s troubles in
a possibly doomed effort to insulate his country from the unrest
across Lebanon´s only open land border.
Fighting has spilled over the frontier several times, along with
several thousand Syrian refugees whose presence in northern Lebanon
has helped inflame Sunni anger against Assad. Weapons smuggling is
common and Syria has accused Lebanon of "incubating terrorist
elements" it blames for the unrest.
Lebanon´s army last month seized and displayed three freight
containers filled with Libyan weapons suspected of heading for
Syria´s rebels, highlighting both the scale of arms shipments and
efforts by authorities to curb them.
"There is no right way to balance these delicate interests, Kamel
said. "It´s going to be very difficult for the government to appease
the Sunni community and at the same time monitor or restrict arms
flows to Syria."
Hezbollah, an ally of Assad which has two ministers in Mikati´s
cabinet, "wants to prevent any real effective support to the Syrian
opposition that would tilt the balance on the ground", said
International Crisis Group analyst Sahar Attrache.
But attempts to restrict support for the Syrian rebels have
antagonized the increasingly emboldened Sunni Islamist activists and
militants in northern Lebanon, where many complain about years of
neglect by politicians in Beirut.
Hariri´s year-long absence from Lebanon, ostensibly for security
reasons, has added to a Sunni political vacuum which has encouraged
other Sunni groups to flex their muscles.
Last week´s violence in Tripoli was triggered by the arrest of Shadi
al-Moulawi, an Islamist supporter of the Syrian uprising who was
charged with membership of a terrorist group. Moulawi, who denies the
charge, was released on bail of $330 on Tuesday in an attempt to
defuse the escalating tensions.
"The showdown after Moulawi´s arrest is new. Before, these groups
needed political cover but this time they are getting more
independent of the political leaders," Attrache said.
The clashes in Tripoli pitted Sunni Muslim gunmen against Alawites -
members of the same minority as Assad - but also against Lebanese
troops when the army tried to end the fighting.
That military intervention, coupled with the killing of a Sunni
Muslim cleric and his companion at an army checkpoint on Sunday, have
stirred up anger against soldiers.
A Sunni Muslim parliamentarian accused the army of being "at the
service of Syria" and some Tripoli residents heckled soldiers as
"Questioning the army is very worrying, very dangerous," Attrache
said, adding that erosion of army legitimacy was one of the factors
which contributed to Lebanon´s descent into 15 years of civil war in
The composition of Lebanon´s army broadly reflects the wide sectarian
elements of Lebanon´s diverse Muslim and Christian communities,
although many recruits come from the relatively poor northern Akkar
SHADOW OF CIVIL WAR?
Four Gulf Arab nations - Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab
Emirates - have told their citizens to stay away from Lebanon, citing
security concerns, and Saudi Arabia´s King Abdullah said the "shadow
of civil war" hangs over Lebanon.
The crisis is likely to hurt the summer tourism season, an important
source of foreign revenue, and has helped push Beirut´s stock market
index down to 1,154 points on Wednesday, 30 percent down from levels
in April 2010 before domestic and regional unrest hit investor
Amid the growing fears of instability, Hezbollah - whose supporters
seized control of west Beirut four years ago in the last bout of
major violence in the capital - has sought to calm the fevered
Its leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah called for restraint on Tuesday
after the kidnapping of 13 Lebanese Shi´ites in Syria, and avoided
getting sucked into the fighting in Beirut on Monday which security
sources said pitched supporters of Hariri´s Future Movement against a
Sunni group sympathetic to Hezbollah.
"Hezbollah is going to sit on its hands. It is not going to do
anything. Hezbollah´s modus operandi has always been not to get
dragged into sectarian strife," said Amal Saad Ghorayeb, author of a
book on the Shi´ite movement.
"So long as these groups don´t pose a threat to Hezbollah´s
resistance (to Israel) in any way, there is no way Hezbollah will get
dragged in just because of killings."
But it might still seek to use its influence with pro-Syrian groups
in the north if it felt support for the Syrian opposition
becomes "more aggressive", Attrache said.
A political source in Lebanon´s March 8 coalition, which includes
Hezbollah, said the Shi´ite group would not resort to arms even if
tensions in the north endured for decades. But he made clear
Hezbollah was monitoring the region closely.
"There are serious efforts to turn the north into an operations room
for Syrian rebels," he said. "This will only happen in the absence of
the army and state authority."
Analyst Kamel said clashes were likely to continue in Tripoli between
Sunni Muslim and Alawite gunmen, as well as fighting between Sunni
Islamist groups and the army, although tensions in the capital itself
might be contained.
"This is not a chapter heading to civil war, but rather one where
conflicts or violence are geographically localized, particularly in
the north," he said.
(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; editing by Philippa Fletcher)
(© Thomson Reuters 2012. 05/23/12)
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