Lebanon becomes next front in sectarian conflict

By Ayham Kamel

The massive bomb that exploded on October 19 in Beirut, killing Lebanon's domestic security head, signaled the potential arrival of a bloodier, more aggressive phase in the Middle East conflagration. The sophistication of the attack suggests the involvement of capable forces. While there is no evidence clearly implicating Syria or Hizbullah, both stand to benefit from the assassination.

The bombing that killed General Wissam al Hassan, and the clashes that have followed, raises the prospect of civil war in Lebanon and the continuing spread of sectarian conflict throughout the Middle East. It helps to relieve pressure on an increasingly weaker regime by forcing Lebanon to turn inward.

At one time, Syria preferred a stable Lebanon, one where it retained influence through its allies. But as Bashar al Assad's grip on power has weakened during Syria's own civil war, Sunni opposition forces in Lebanon have become more aggressive in supporting Syrian rebels.

Assad has now likely calculated that stability in Lebanon is a threat to his own regime. Prime Minister Najib Mikati and his Hizbullah-led government have implemented a non-alignment policy that aims to appease both domestic and external powers. But with Sunni rebels taking advantage of the policy by using northern Lebanon as a logistical staging ground, the Mikati government is not of use to Assad. The government has become dispensable.

Forcing the Sunni Lebanese opposition to focus at least some of its attention on local affairs as a result of the bombing reduces its ability to aid Syrian rebels. Moreover, Hassan built a highly capable force in the security services that largely served the interests of the Sunni-dominated Future Movement. And Syrian officials believe that Hassan's intelligence division crossed a red line when it recently accused top echelons of the Syrian security establishment of conspiring to assassinate Lebanese politicians.

Despite the rise in tensions, the Mikati government is likely to remain intact in the near term, primarily because he has the backing of Western countries that fear the potential power vacuum and instability that would ensue if the government were to crumble. President Michel Sulaiman initiated consultation to form a new government but the process will be challenging. And unless Lebanese parties reach consensus on a new government, Mikati is unlikely to resign and leave an open power vacuum. Neither the Mikati government nor the Future Movement is in firm control of its supporters, making it difficult to prevent escalation should more violence occur. The Mikati government will wither over time, with the prospect of civil war climbing steadily.

Ayham Kamel is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.