In Lebanon, signs of sectarian strain bear echoes of a devastating civil war
Haaretz analyst Avi Issacharoff believes a lot has changed in Israel's neighbor to the north since the end of its 16-year-long war. However, Assad's ouster could undo what has been a delicate ethnic and religious balance.
The battles that have been raging in the northern Lebanon city of Tripoli in the last three days prompt grave concerns that those events serve just as the dress rehearsal ahead of a wider civil war that could break following the possible ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Until now, reports indicated, 12 people have been killed in clashes between Sunni and Alawite militias, with around 100 wounded. On Wednesday, the Lebanese army reached a ceasefire agreement, with the aid of some of the city's prominent figures, such as top clergymen and lawmakers. The deal stated, among other clauses, that the military would deploy in the Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh area, where most clashes have been taking place.
However, with gunfights renewing at 5 P.M., the ceasefire attempt proved short-lived. As if to add more fuel to the blaze that is Lebanon, one of Tripoli's Sunni sheikhs added more fuel to Lebanon's fire, publishing a statement that called for the creation of a "Sunni military council." While the city's mufti, or religious leader, rejected the offer, it's likely that, with time, such an offer will gain more traction.
It would be too simplistic to claim that the rivalry being played out in Tripoli is one between anti and pro-Syria groups. Some of those fighting on the Sunni side, for example, are known members of Fatah al-Islam, a Jihadi group that considers Alawites to be infidels. Gunmen on the other side of the fence, in addition, aren't necessarily bonded by their affinity to Damascus but, sometimes, by tribal loyalty. However, regardless of those militias' motives, the inability of Lebanon and its army to deal with the crisis in Tripoli emphasizes how fragile the balance in that country is, and how close it could be to all-out war. The chain of events that led to the break of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 was triggered by an incident much less dramatic than what's taking place in Tripoli, in Beirut's Ain El-Rummaneh neighborhood, resulting in a nation-wide conflict that lasted for 16 years. Then, much like today, the Lebanese army unsuccessfully tried to intervene in order to stop the bloodshed. And what led to the full-on outbreak of that war was the army's disintegration, as almost half of its troops deserted to form Sunni militias.
A lot has changed in the country since then. Firstly, the Shi'ites, who were never took a significant role in the civil war, have becomes Lebanon's leading force. Shi'ites make up about two thirds of the Lebanese army, with Hezbollah being the country's most powerful militia. Secondly, Syrian involvement in Lebanon has shifted form, and, for now, Damascus does not have an official military present in its neighbor to the west. And, finally, the Palestinian "ex factor" is virtually non-existent (other than militants inside the refugee camps, which don't really pose much of a threat). But, despite these differences there are a quite a few similarities between realities then and now.
Like during the civil war, the Syrians are everywhere in Lebanon, even if not in any official capacity. In fact, Syria's de facto involvement in its neighbor's affairs hadn’t stopped since three Syrian battalions entered Lebanon in September 1975, in what was described at the time as an attempt to end the civil war. The Syrians never gave up on the idea of a Greater Syria, that includes Lebanon. The story of Michel Samaha, the former minister who was recently arrested over suspicions that he was sent by Syria to plan bomb attacks meant to stir up sectarian hostilities (much like those taking place in Tripoli) shows just how much the Syrian presence never ebbed, ever after Assad's army exited Lebanon in 2005. While the various groups don't possess the amount of arms they did during war, the numbers are growing every day. Foreign involvement is there too, only the names have changed: instead of Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi's Libya, we have Iran, Saudi Arabia, the West, and, of course, Syria, all stirring the local political and military pot.
Much has been said concerning the expected weakening of Hezbollah's power following Assad's possible ouster. But that weakening will have, and already has other implications, such as the undoing of the current balance of power and a change to the Lebanese state as we now know it. Hezbollah, for now, is just watching on, maybe even enjoying the view. It may offer to intervene at some point in order to restore peace to the country. Eventually, the Shi'ite militant group may also be damaged by the awakening among Lebanon's other ethnic and religious groups and by the possibility of military action, and it could direct try to mitigate that damage by provoking Israel. At least one thing has remained as it was in the new Middle East – it's never boring in Lebanon.