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Kidnappings, burning tyre road blocks, and gun battles - just another week in Lebanon?

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Is the Syrian crisis spilling over into Lebanon behind the recent chaotic events? Events that occur on a semi-regular basis, when viewed in relation to the neighbouring conflict in Syria, warrant far greater attention.

Christopher Sisserian
26 August 2012

Kidnappings often take place in Lebanon, either for ransom or political purposes, especially with regard to inter-tribal disagreements. In the last few months blocking roads by burning tyres has become increasingly common as a form of protest at the governments ineffectiveness in dealing with various issues, particularly the fate of 11 Lebanese nationals who have been kidnapped in Syria.

Finally as a legacy of the country’s 15 year civil war, there is a high rate of private weapon ownership which means that sporadic gunfights often erupt over disagreements. By these counts Lebanon is a failed state, especially since the Lebanese army is often unable and at times unwilling to intervene to restore order, as other actors in many cases out-gun it.

However in spite of the relative ‘normality’ of such occurrences, recent events provide greater cause for concern than usual. The spate of kidnapping by the powerful al-Mekdad clan in retaliation for the kidnapping of one of their own in Syria, prompted the blocking of various roads including the highway leading to the airport which resulted in several days of confusion and prompted an exodus of foreign nationals from the country. The heavily armed clan which numbers close to 20,000, still holding 20 Syrians and a Turk hostage, is frequently accused of belonging to Hezbollah, though it denies this and claims it is acting independently.

Hezbollah, which leads the government, has remained relatively quiet amidst the chaos, in what has been praised by some as an effort not to ignite tensions further. However the pro-Syrian regime Hezbollah has also remained quiet over a plot involving former Lebanese information minister Michel Samaha and the head of the Syrian national security bureau, General Ali Mamlouk, in detonating bombs throughout Lebanon to provoke sectarian tensions and draw Lebanon into the Syrian conflict. As Hezbollah is widely accepted as the most powerful military force in Lebanon (including the state army), its actions are of crucial importance. This would have a decisive impact on any conflict.

Lebanon has often served as an arena for proxy wars, and some believe that the Assad regime is doing its utmost to draw Lebanon into the Syrian conflict. Recent clashes in Lebanon’s second city Tripoli, between the pro-Assad Alawite Jabal Mohsen and the anti-Assad Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh neighbourhoods have left 12 dead and over 70 wounded. The Lebanese army has been deployed to try and maintain a ceasefire. Although it initially lacked the authorisation to intervene to bring an end to the conflict, it has now been given the green light to do so, signalling that the government is becoming increasingly concerned about the intensity of the fighting. The minister of defence warns that should it continue, the rest of Lebanon may be drawn in. Senior UN officials are amongst many who view these clashes as a clear sign that this is already the case.

Lebanon has long been affected by events across the border in Syria, which only withdrew its armed forces from the country in 2005, and there are many ties between the two states at both the state and societal level. Politics remains divided between the pro-Syrian Hezbollah led government and the anti-Syrian opposition, which is a divide reflected across many communities, currently being demonstrated by the fighting in Tripoli. As a result it seems the official policy of the Lebanese government to disassociate itself from the conflict in Syria may be difficult to maintain as the combination of chaotic events over the past week have raised serious fears of a return to conflict in Lebanon.

Though the potential for conflict is often described as being a spill over from Syria, sectarian conflict has defined Lebanon throughout its modern history, and many points of tension remain unresolved.  The country’s complex web of sectarian, political and tribal alliances and feuds mean that various actors could become rapidly involved in a conflict that would quickly gather its own momentum, rather than simply being a subsidiary theatre to the Syrian issue. As the Syrian conflict evolves and takes on an increasingly sectarian nature it appears as though Lebanese sectarianism has spilt over into Syria. Syria’s conflict may then reciprocate, overflowing into Lebanon.

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