The tensions between the two neighborhoods were
building for days in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. On one side
live Sunni Muslims who hate the Syrian regime. On the hill above are
members of the Alawite sect, Bashar Assad's strongest backers.
Overnight, the tempers exploded. For hours, gunmen in the two
districts traded automatic weapons fire and volleys of rocket-propelled
grenades across the avenue that divides them, ironically named Syria
By the time a shaky truce was reached Saturday, two people were
dead - one from each side - and 12 people wounded, half of them
soldiers trying to stop the clashes.
The fighting underscored how the bloodshed in Syria, where
Assad's regime is cracking down on an 11-month-old uprising against his
rule, is enflaming emotions in its tiny neighbor Lebanon. The already
deep divisions between Lebanese are being strained, and many fear
Syria's chaos will bleed over across the border.
Lebanon is sharply split along sectarian lines, with 18
religious sects. But it also has a fragile political faultline precisely
over the issue of Syria.
There is an array of diehard pro-Syrian Lebanese parties and
politicians, as well as support for the regime on the street level.
There is an equally deep hatred of Assad among other Lebanese who fear
Damascus is still calling the shots here. The two sides are the legacy
of, and backlash against, Syria's virtual rule over Lebanon from 1976 to
2005 and its continued influence since.
Tempers between the two sides are high enough. But Syria opponents worry the regime may intentionally cause trouble.
"The Syrian regime holds a lot of cards in Lebanon, and the
biggest fear is that as the Assad regime gets more desperate, it would
decide to use them to create regional chaos," anti-Syrian politician
Mustafa Alloush said.
Among those cards is Hezbollah, the Syrian and Iranian-backed
Shiite militant group with an arsenal of weapons more powerful than that
of the Lebanese army.
Already, any talk about Syria is potential cause for a fight.
On a political talk show on Al-Jazeera TV earlier this month,
Lebanese writer and Syria supporter Joseph Abu Fadel flew into a rage
over taunts from the other guest, a Syrian opposition member.
Abu Fadel leaped from his chair and charged around the table,
fists clenched - and though the host got between them, he managed to
land a slap on his rival's face.
An earlier show on Lebanese television turned into a brawl when
Alloush called Syria's president a liar. His rival guest, Fayez Shukur,
the head of the Lebanese branch of Syria's ruling party, hurled a glass
of water in his face.
Northern Lebanon, in particular, is a potential powder keg.
It has a strong Sunni Muslim population, sympathetic to its
sectarian brethren who have been the backbone of the Syrian uprising.
But it also has pockets of Alawites, the Shiite offshoot that makes up
the majority of the Syrian regime's leadership and to which Assad
The Friday-Saturday night clashes were between the mainly Sunni
Bab Tabbaneh neighborhood and the adjacent, Alawite-majority Jabal
Mohsen, on a hill overlooking its rival.
Short bouts of gunfire or grenade-throwing between them has
been going on for years because of the sectarian tensions. But the
violence has become more frequent as Syria worsens. Sunnis in Bab
Tabbaneh resent their Alawite neighbors' backing of Assad, while Jabal
Mohsen residents accuse their rivals of giving aid to the uprising.
In Beirut last week, hundreds of Lebanese demonstrators faced
off outside the Russian Embassy after Russia and China vetoed a Western-
and Arab-backed resolution at the U.N. Security Council aimed at
pressing Assad to step down. An army cordon separated the anti-Assad
crowd from the president's supporters to prevent clashes.
"Bashar, we are your men!" supporters shouted unanimously.
"Come on, Bashar, leave!" opponents chanted back.
Many of Lebanon's Christians, meanwhile, have been laying low on the subject of Syria.
Their community is divided between pro- and anti-Syrian camps.
Even some Christian opponents of Damascus are hesitant about backing an
uprising they fear will bring Sunni fundamentalists to power in Syria.
Patriarch Bechara al-Rai, head of the Maronite Church, which
had long been critical of Damascus, raised an uproar in September when
he warned that the Christian presence in the Mideast could be threatened
if Assad falls. He said Assad should be given a chance to reform.
The tensions come at a time when anti-Syrian parties in
Lebanon, which once ran the government, are weakened. They were replaced
in 2010 by a government dominated by Hezbollah and pro-Syrian allies.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a personal friend of Assad, says he isn't
taking sides in the crisis, adopting a policy of "disassociation."
Still, opponents accuse the government of complicity with Damascus.
Lebanon voted against suspending Syria from the Arab League in
November and was the only member state that did not endorse a League
plan calling on Assad to transfer powers to his vice president.
"The Lebanese government is cooperating with the Syrian regime,
they are only using this policy of disassociation as a cover," Alloush
A longtime Syrian military presence in Lebanon ended after
massive 2005 protests sparked by the killing of former Lebanese Prime
Minister Rafik Hariri in a car bombing. Many Lebanese accuse Syria of
involvement in the assassination, a charge Damascus denies.
A Western-backed, anti-Syrian government was elected, but its
stint in power was plagued by constant feuds with Hezbollah, until the
Shiite movement succeeded in bringing it down and elevating pro-Syrians
Writing in the leading An-Nahar daily, political analyst
Abdelwahab Badrakhan warned that Syria could stir up trouble in Lebanon
to intimidate the West and "settle scores" with Arabs it accuses of
conspiring against it.
Anti-Syrian politicians say they fear possible assassinations,
recalling a string of unsolved killings of Lebanese critics of Syria in
2006. Last week, media reported that legislator Sami Gemayel had been
warned by a security chief to take precautions because of a threat.
Alloush, the anti-Syrian politician, said he takes the warnings seriously.
"The Syrian regime is in trouble and as it goes down, the concern is that it will try to bring everyone down with it."(nvn)