Syria's flames fuel trouble in Lebanon

By James Fallon and Ayham Kamel

On May 21, the Lebanese Armed Forces shot and killed prominent Sunni Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Wahed as his convoy passed through a checkpoint, triggering gun battles in Beirut's Tariq al Jdeideh neighborhood between two Sunni political parties, the anti-Syrian Future Movement and the pro-Syrian Arab Movement Party. The fighting followed clashes between Alawites and Sunnis in Tripoli in response to the arrest of Shadi al Mawlawi, a Sunni Salafist activist accused of aiding the Syrian opposition. Clearly, Syria's troubles have crossed the border into Lebanon.

In fact, Syria's turmoil is polarizing Lebanese factions and threatening the country's delicate political balance. Conflict in Syria has fallen largely along sectarian lines, and it is now fueling sectarian tension in Lebanon. The majority of protesters facing daily violence from the Syrian regime are Sunni, and this has driven moral and material support for their cause from Lebanon's mainly Sunni north. To avoid confrontation with his Sunni community, Prime Minister Najib Mikati has not actively interfered to stop such assistance, creating a perception that his government is at least tacitly complicit in supporting rebels.

Ironically, the one cross-sectarian institution in Lebanon that many consider capable and trustworthy -- the country's armed forces -- is a problematic tool for ending street violence between Lebanon's political parties. On the one hand, the sectarian diversity within the army gives it some level of credibility with all of Lebanon's various factions. In fact, in May 2008, when Hezbollah gunmen fought Sunni militias for control of mainly Sunni neighborhoods in west Beirut, the army helped defuse tensions on both sides -- greatly bolstering its credibility and national popularity. Yet, then as now, the army could not directly intervene to stop the bloodshed, because the sectarian fault lines that run through the country's politics and society are also apparent within its ranks. Prime Minister Najib Mikati knows that if he calls on them to engage directly, there's a risk that soldiers will join the various fights instead of breaking them up.

Recent unrest is exacerbating this fear. During clashes on May 21, Sunni gunmen directed their fire at the army. Following the checkpoint shooting, the army withdrew from some positions in the north, and several Sunni politicians called for a more permanent expulsion. The military's response was measured, but the rise of militant factions in northern Lebanon is making it much harder for the army to intervene in battles in which its soldiers may feel they have a stake. These conditions could be an indication that the army's tenuous role as super-sectarian arbiter is deteriorating among some Lebanese, particularly the Sunni population. As the Sunni-dominated northern region of Tripoli and its surroundings continue to serve as a logistical base for Syrian rebels, we'll probably see more of these clashes, and the government's ability to deploy forces without risking its credibility will definitely diminish.

Political instability is likely to rise in Lebanon as the Syria crisis worsens, and efforts better spent on the already difficult task of governing will be redirected toward buttressing the fragile balance necessary to maintain any government at all. Lebanon's political institutions have proven resilient in the face of serious challenges over the years, but that resilience is often the result of choosing to do nothing that might fan the country's flames.

Inaction may avoid making matters worse, but it does little to resolve the underlying causes of persistent instability in Lebanon.

James Fallon is an associate with Eurasia Group's Middle East practice. Ayham Kamel is an analyst in the firm's Middle East and North Africa practice.