Syria and Sectarianism: Spillover Violence in Lebanon

Tripoli’s Bab al Tibbaneh and Jabal Mohsen districts are divided by more than just Syria Street. The Lebanese city has been riven by fighting between Sunni and Alawite factions, such as the bloodletting that occurred on October 22. The violence has largely been considered spillover from the Syrian civil war. At least seventeen people have been killed and one hundred more have been wounded in this sectarian conflict. Today, Sunni residents of Bab al-Tibbaneh and Alawite residents of Jabal Mohsen remain nearly as violently divided as Syria itself over the issue of the civil war.

Residents from these adjacent districts have fought frequently since the Lebanese civil war in 1975-90, and have clashed repeatedly since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in March 2011. The recent round of fighting broke out on a Monday evening following Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s appearance in a television interview.

While not a foreign concept to these two neighborhoods, the recent outbreak of violence is indicative of both the vulnerability of sectarian fissures in Lebanon and of how deeply intertwined Lebanese military groups have become with the Syrian civil war. In May, Hezbollah admitted to sending fighters into Syria to support the Assad regime. Small, radical Sunni organizations have also sent troops across the border to fight alongside rebels. Now it seems that the Syrian violence is spilling back into Lebanon.

The recent outbreak of violence proves worrisome given the peace agreement that preceded it. This August, two car bombs were detonated at Sunni mosques, killing between 42 forty-two and 47 forty-seven people, and wounding hundreds more. Two weeks after the incident, the Lebanese government deployed a security plan to maintain peace in Tripoli. Until this most recent surge in violence, the peace had been largely maintained.

A week after the first shots were fired, the Lebanese army deployed troops to the two districts and reinforced its presence in Tripoli. The establishment of checkpoints along Syria Street has left downtown Tripoli empty. While the acting Lebansese Prime Minister Najib Mikati stated that “strict and impartial” security forces “will take every step to put an end to the violence and chaos,” many have questioned whether the Prime Minister truly wishes to act in an unbiased manner.

Former Tripoli MP Misbah al-Mahdab accused Mikati of being “a friend of Bashar Assad” and of failing to rescind the license of the Arab Democratic Party after its members “were implicated in the bombings outside the Salam and Taqwa [Sunni] Mosques” in August. It seems that even the goal of restoring peace to two warring districts is riddled with sectarian tension.

Where does this latest episode fit into the broader issue of factionalism in Lebanon? Spillover violence from the Syrian conflict into Bab al-Tibbaneh and Jabal Mohsen is hardly a new phenomenon. What ought to be most worrisome to policymakers is that the most recent incident sprang up at the crossroads of multiple issues that profoundly divide the Lebanese population. The current conflict in Syria, the August bombings, and the questionable impartiality of Lebanon’s own government have all been subject of intense debate within Lebanese politics.

It is absolutely vital that the Lebanese government act in a nonpartisan manner as it attempts to quiet the gunfire across Syria Street. In addition, the issue of the August mosque bombings must be resolved in a fair manner. While sectarian clashes between sharply divided groups will continue to flare up in Lebanon, just and transparent actions on the part of the government may help prevent violence from Syria from spilling into Lebanon. If Mikati clearly favors one side, the nation could easily descend into widespread chaos.

While this latest rise in sectarian violence may not have pushed Lebanon to the brink of civil war, it has served to remind the international community of the delicate balance between Lebanon’s political divisions. In a regionally important state where military groups hold significant sway, one misstep could lead to mayhem.

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