Why Syria still isn't tipping Lebanon into civil war

Syria's war has certainly heightened tensions in Lebanon, leading to sporadic sectarian violence, but there is a difference between spates of attacks and a full-scale war.

Omar Ibrahim/Reuters
Lebanese army soldiers ride on their military vehicles after being deployed to tighten security after days of clashes between Sunni Muslims and Alawites in the northern port city of Tripoli October 28, 2013.

The inability of the Lebanese authorities to quickly stamp out a week of fighting between rival sectarian factions in Lebanon’s second-largest city underlines the country's vulnerability to further spillover from the war in neighboring Syria.

But Lebanon is not expected to descend into full-scale civil war like Syria, despite the likelihood that a rise in sectarian violence will continue its trajectory in coming months, particularly if an anxiously anticipated offensive in the Qalamoun area of Syria – which some say has already gotten off to a low-grade start – spills over into Lebanon as many expect. 

The clashes in Tripoli between Sunni gunmen and local Alawites, a Shiite sect that also forms the backbone of the Syrian regime, have killed at least 16 people and wounded dozens since Oct. 21. They come amid a gradual deterioration of security across the country, stretching the capabilities of security forces and raising speculation that the country could slide into civil war.

In the last few months, Lebanon has also experienced several deadly car bomb attacks, a battle between Sunni militants and the army in south Lebanon, artillery shelling and rocket fire by both the Syrian army and Syrian rebels against different areas of Lebanon, and numerous alleged plots uncovered by the security forces to stage further car bombings and suicide attacks.

In the past week alone, Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi ambassador to Washington, warned that “Lebanon is very much on the brink of ... civil war” while Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon claimed that it had already started. “To those who are not aware, there is already a civil war in Lebanon,” he said, citing the recent car bomb attacks and rocket firings.

Still, Lebanese analysts say such assertions are overly alarmist and do not take into account the important distinction between periodic civil violence and civil war, similar to the intensity of conflict experienced by Syria today and Lebanon between 1975 and 1990.

“Civil war in a country like Lebanon entails a large-scale political, financial, and military mobilization of all the major communities with the goal of reshaping power politics in a way that is definitive and difficult to reverse,” says Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow at the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “While civil war in the traditional sense is not likely, there is a far higher likelihood – if not certainty – that Lebanon will experience a protracted cycle of violence, especially if the Syria conflict goes on unresolved.”

The violence in Tripoli is a case in point. The rivalries between the impoverished Sunni neighborhood of Bab Tebbaneh and the Alawite-populated Jabal Mohsen date back to Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war and outbreaks of fighting here are not uncommon. But the fighting, while tragic for the city’s residents, does not have a domino effect of triggering clashes elsewhere. The Tripoli battles remain confined to the warring neighborhoods.

Still, the recent fighting in Tripoli led to a week-long paralysis in much of the city, with schools and businesses closed and residents staying at home. The Lebanese government, which has been in a caretaker capacity since its resignation in March, appeared helpless (instability has forced a postponement of elections of a new government). Lebanese troops repeatedly came under fire when they attempted to come between the battling sides, leaving residents frightened and exasperated.

“With [this] scene of terror, we ask what have the prime minister, ministers, and lawmakers of the city done [to end the clashes]?” asked Mosbah Ahdab, a former lawmaker from Tripoli in a news conference on Sunday. “They held meetings and gatherings and launched stances and statements and, as usual, the decisions of their meetings remain secret and they just declare that the political cover should be lifted from fighters.”

An empty street strewn with rubbish and brass bullet casings marks the frontline dividing the mainly Sunni-populated Qobbe neighborhood with the hilltop Alawite district of Jabal Mohsen. The Lebanese army established checkpoints at either end of the street, but few people ventured down it Monday – persistent sniping killed more Tripoli residents throughout the day. In Jabal Mohsen, the streets were empty of traffic and residents gathered in small huddles beside shops and buildings.

“We didn’t want to get dragged into the battle with Bab Tebbaneh but they attacked us with rifle grenades and it turned into a full battle,” says Ali Fouda, the political spokesman of the Arab Democratic Party, which represents Lebanese Alawites. “The only solution for our troubles will be when the war is over in Syria and we have a new leadership in Lebanon and then there will be no more fighting between Bab Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen.” 

Shortly afterwards, three soldiers were wounded by suspected Sunni gunmen when they attempted to deploy in Bab Tebbaneh.

The latest clashes were provoked in part by accusations from the Lebanese judiciary that some of the perpetrators of twin car bomb attacks against Sunni mosques in August that left 45 people dead and hundreds wounded were residents of Jabal Mohsen, working in collusion with Syrian intelligence. Mr. Fouda denied that the wanted men were from Jabal Mohsen and blamed a security agency for promoting “rumors.”

Although a tenuous calm returned to Tripoli on Tuesday morning after the deployment of additional troops, few expect it to last.

“This is not over. We will keep the pressure on Jabal Mohsen until they hand over those accused of the bombings,” says Sheikh Shadi Jbara, an imam of a Sunni mosque in Bab Tebbaneh and a local militia leader.

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