Recent clashes in north Lebanon and Beirut have left several people dead and wounded. In a Q&A, Paul Salem warns that Lebanon is being pulled into the conflict in neighboring Syria. Factions inside and outside of Lebanon are channeling support for the Syrian opposition through northern Lebanon as the Syrian regime is pressuring the Hezbollah-dominated government in Beirut to be more supportive of its traditional ally.

While Salem argues that Lebanon is not currently headed toward a widespread collapse, regional players and the international community must recognize the danger of using Lebanon as a proxy battle for another Arab country.

What is triggering the escalation of violence in Lebanon? Where are the areas of concern?

Paul Salem
Salem was director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon. He works and publishes on the regional and international relations of the Middle East as well as issues of political development and democratization in the Arab world.
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The events of the past week are perhaps the most worrisome to take place in Lebanon since May 2008, when clashes in Beirut led to Hezbollah taking over the capital and a change of government. Things took a turn for the worse on Sunday when soldiers at an army checkpoint in north Lebanon shot and killed a local Sunni Sheikh who was a very vocal supporter of the Syrian rebels. As a result, the level of tension between the Sunni community and the Lebanese army has risen. More broadly, tensions between the various factions in the country, and particularly between Sunni and Shia communities, have escalated as well.

There are a number of factors behind this recent escalation. Most importantly, the uprising in Syria has drawn sympathy from the Sunni community of north Lebanon, which has many connections to Sunni communities in the nearby Syrian cities of Hama and Homs and their surrounding areas. Many in these northern Lebanese communities have provided shelter to Syrian refugees in addition to giving other types of support to the Syrian rebels. A number of Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are funneling money and resources—perhaps with cooperation from some Western powers—to north Lebanon as a base of support for the rebels in Syria.

Another side of the dynamic is the fact that the Sunni community throughout Lebanon has felt marginalized and disadvantaged since Hezbollah, which is a Shia organization, defeated Sunni parties in May 2008 and took over the capital. This was in addition to its dominance in south Lebanon and the Bekaa valley. In January 2011, Hezbollah used this power to bring down the government of Saad al-Hariri and install a government more to its liking. The partial uprising over the last ten days of armed Sunnis in Tripoli and the north, with smaller stirrings in Sunni parts of Beirut, is an expression of empowerment by the Sunni community and an act of defiance against Hezbollah’s power and the government.

How is the Lebanese government responding?

The Lebanese government, led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who is from Tripoli, has been scrambling since the protests broke out to try and defuse the crisis and restore calm to Tripoli and north Lebanon—and now to the capital as well.

Part of the problem, however, is that many in the Sunni community see this government as dominated by their opponent, Hezbollah. There is also a lot of infighting within the government and rising tensions between the government and the various security branches of the state. The chief of the general security agency that arrested a young Islamist in Tripoli on May 12 (first triggering these recent armed protests) is known to be very close to Hezbollah, and the arrest was made in the offices of the Sunni Minister of Finance Muhammed Safadi, who is also from Tripoli. The arrest was seen by many as a warning from Hezbollah and Syria to the Mikati government to retreat from its avowed policy of neutrality toward the Syrian crisis and openly support the Syrian regime.

Recent events in the north have created distrust between the population and several of the state’s security agencies, including the general security agency, and now the Lebanese army, which previously enjoyed very broad legitimacy and support. The government has no real authority over the general security agency but has promised a quick investigation into the Lebanese army’s killing of the Sunni Sheikh.

These recent events indicate that while Lebanon managed to preserve stability and calm for the first year of the Syrian uprising, it may now be moving into a period where the crisis pulls various communities in different directions. The government may no longer be able to resist the related internal and external pressures.

The current government already faced many political difficulties in recent months regarding its general performance, internal disunity, and handling of the budget and the country’s economy. It is possible the government could fall in the coming weeks or months, presenting Lebanon with the challenge of cobbling together a new government. This will be particularly challenging because of the contradictions and pressures introduced by the Syrian crisis. Lebanon is already slated to hold critical parliamentary elections in the spring of next year.

Despite this challenge and rising tensions, I believe the violence will remain sporadic and contained. I do not believe, at this time, that we are heading toward wider sectarian and party clashes in the near term or to a widespread collapse of security or stability in Beirut or Lebanon in general.

How is the conflict in Syria impacting Lebanese stability? Is there a risk of violent outbreaks in border regions?

During the first year of the Syrian crisis, the Assad regime seemed content that a friendly government had been formed in Beirut, even though the Lebanese government had announced that it was neutral and was not involving itself directly with the Syrian crisis.

However, these conditions have since changed. The government in Damascus, feeling increasingly embattled, is demanding more from its allies in Beirut in terms of open support.

Additionally, during that first year, regional and international players were not looking to Lebanon as a place of support where Syrian rebels could be organized or channeled through. But the uprising has failed to topple the Assad regime, and a military intervention (like the one in Libya) is not in the cards. Subsequently, a number of regional and international players have opted to support and arm the Syrian opposition and some are using Lebanon, particularly the north of the country, as a base to do so. Additionally, the Sunni community in Lebanon (similar to Sunni communities in Turkey and the rest of the region) could not sit idly by as their brethren in faith were killed and therefore a natural dynamic of sympathy and support emerged.

Thus, for better or for worse, Lebanon is becoming increasingly embroiled in the crisis in Syria. It is not surprising that civil war in Syria would spread to other neighboring countries. There has been a recurrent flow of refugees from Syria into Lebanon. Syria has tried to staunch this flow by patrolling its side of the border, and it is leaning on the Lebanese government to restrict or refuse humanitarian support to these groups. There have also been incidents when Syrian forces have chased some Syrian rebels across the border or shot at towns and villages on the Lebanese side.

The fear today is that with north Lebanon becoming increasingly supportive of the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime could find ways of—directly or indirectly—retaliating against Lebanon. The recent killing of an anti-Syrian Sheikh is interpreted by some as one such retaliation. The leader of the Alawi enclave in Tripoli in north Lebanon has also declared the right to cross the border and intervene in Syria if his community feels embattled.

Should the country be worried about threats from external actors like al-Qaeda or other violent groups?

There are certainly concerns that al-Qaeda and other radical groups can take advantage of insecurity and instability. They did so in a big way, of course, in Iraq. There have been worries that there may be al-Qaeda cells working in Syria as well, and the general security agency is alleging that the person it arrested, along with others in north Lebanon, are affiliated with al-Qaeda.

But the Syrian regime’s claim that all of the rebels, particularly the Islamists, are al-Qaeda terrorists is a standard accusation and is part of Syria’s strategy to undermine its opposition and justify violence. While there are constant concerns in Lebanon and many Arab countries that al-Qaeda may infiltrate here or there, there is nothing to indicate that what is happening in Tripoli and north Lebanon is connected to or has anything to do with al-Qaeda.

What we are seeing, certainly, is the empowerment of Islamist, and particularly Salafist, groups in Tripoli and north Lebanon. These groups are the most vocal supporters of the Syrian revolution in Lebanon, and are probably the most likely recipients of aid from public or private sources in the Gulf. Islamist and Salafist groups have been part of the social fabric of north Lebanon for a long time; their more visible presence in the events of the past ten days does not indicate a sea change so much as a newfound strength, a result of regional financing and support, and probably has nothing to do with al-Qaeda. It is also worth noting that these Salafist and Islamist groups are directing their rhetoric against Syria and the Syrian regime, not against Christians or secularists or other groups in Lebanon. Hence, the level of concern they raise internally is limited.

Should the international community be concerned about Lebanon? What steps should they take to calm the situation?

The international community should be concerned about Lebanon. Syria and other regional players are putting opposing pressures on Lebanon with regard to the crisis in Syria. Given its internal divisions and precarious balance, such pressures could quickly lead to a collapse of the Lebanese government and trigger escalating violence.

Lebanon is certainly concerned with events in Syria and the country’s communities and political parties are divided on whether to support the Syrian revolution or not. But Lebanon cannot afford to again serve as a proxy arena for regional or international players seeking to affect events in another Arab country. Regional and international leaders should acknowledge the high costs to Lebanon of such a strategy and instead find ways to support the Syrian revolution without endangering Lebanon’s hard-won stability and calm.

In addition, regional and international players should encourage the formation of a national unity government for Lebanon. Such a government would bring together all the major political forces in order to absorb and manage the dangerous internal tensions that have emerged in the past ten days. It would also serve to create a higher level of national cooperation, in preparation for the promulgation of a new election law and the holding of crucial parliamentary elections in the spring of next year.