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Dark Clouds Gather Over Lebanon

Tripoli, on Lebanon’s northern coast, witnessed street battles between pro- and anti-Assad groups back in February. Violence erupted again over the weekend, and intermittent fighting continued for a third day today. Rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire echoed through part of the city. Perhaps five people have been killed, and dozens wounded. Lebanon’s Daily Star carried ominous reports (“Tension and fear gripped Tripoli Monday after both political and security efforts failed to maintain a cease-fire”) and photos of men carrying rocket launchers through deserted city streets and ducking into alleys with AK-47s and Lebanese Army tanks rolling past apartment blocks.

This is the clearest sign so far that violence from Syria’s civil war will spill into Lebanon, where Butcher Assad has many allies: some in the national government, others in the “official” security services, still others in community and religious groups, and, of course, Hezbollah.

But sympathy for Syria’s rebels, most of whom are Sunnis, is also strong in Lebanon, and particularly in Tripoli. Fugitives and refugees have poured into the city from Syria, and some Tripoli community leaders have been active in supporting Syria’s rebel forces. One such community leader, Shadi Mawlawi, a member of a prominent Tripoli Islamist family, was arrested last week by Lebanese security forces, which might have sparked this weekend’s fighting that centered on communities along Tripoli’s Alawite-Sunni faultline. Worryingly, Prime Minister Najib Mikati condemned Mawlawi’s arrest, suggesting the security services are operating outside his control.

After decades of violence throughout the country, clashes periodically erupt in Tripoli between combatants including Palestinian militant organizations; Sunni, Shia, and Druze communities; the national army; and others. That makes for a dangerous tinderbox as the Syrian civil war escalates: Reports are emerging that rebels killed twenty-three soldiers in heavy overnight fighting as the Syrian regime sought to regain control of the rebel-held city of Rastan. Meanwhile, Iraq has so far avoided being sucked into Syria’s fighting, despite hosting over 3,000 refugees at last count.

The worst case scenario is not difficult to envision: the conflict in Syria reignites civil war in Lebanon and merges with sectarian violence in Iraq to destabilize the Fertile Crescent from Beirut to Basra. Given Turkey’s concerns with the Kurds in this region and the religious divisions inside Turkey itself, Istanbul would have a hard time staying out of this conflict. Tehran also would feel a strong pull to engage. The United States on both humanitarian and geopolitical grounds might also be pulled into a conflict of this kind.

All the more reason to hope for a swift resolution of the crisis in Syria, and all the more reason for concern that an end to that crisis is nowhere in view.

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  • vanderleun

    “The worst case scenario is not difficult to envision:…” Pretty close but you left out Israel, submarines, and nuclear weapons.

  • Kris

    “The United States on both humanitarian and geopolitical grounds might also be pulled into a conflict of this kind.”

    In general, I’m not biased against interventionism, but heck no! Intervening, especially through a significant insertion of ground forces, after the powder keg blows and it becomes an all against all bloodbath strikes me as the height of foolishness. The time to intervene is before that (and it might possibly be too late). For example, the situation might well be significantly better if the US had put more pressure on the bad guys following the Cedar Revolution.

  • Deniz

    Ankara, and not Istanbul, is the capital of Turkey.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Deniz: You are right and as I’ve been to both cities many times, that error should never have appeared on this blog. Another intern is being dragged into the House of Pain.

  • Kris

    WRM@4: And here I thought this was a sly dig at the “Tel-Aviv regime” crowd. 🙂

  • dennymack

    Where does the Lebanese military fit into this? Are they relatively neutral, or does the population see them as partisan to one faction? (If so, which faction?)
    Also, if you know of any reliable informational sources on Lebanon, I would appreciate a pointer.
    I am trying to wrap my head around this, since I am teaching about the Middle East right now.

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