Syrian Civil War Threatens to Drag Lebanon Down With It Too

Unidentified gunmen have assassinated Mohammed Darrar Jamo, a Syrian political analyst and Baath Party official who resided in Lebanon and often appeared on Arabic news programs to defend Bashar Al-Assad's regime. Other Baath Party officials in Damascus had recently warned Jamo to "be careful" before a gang of killers gunned him down in front of his wife as he returned home with the groceries.

This was undoubtedly the latest of many sectarian attacks, which have occurred with greater frequency in Lebanon following Syria's eruption into a bloody, horrific civil war. In fact, the Syrian war, which has already begun to unravel Lebanon's fragile confessional political system, poses a clear risk of exacerbating Lebanese sectarian tensions. This would throw the country into yet another civil war alongside Syria.

Tensions in Lebanon have risen ever since Hezbollah, a Shi'a political party and militia which the U.S. designates as a terrorist group, began fighting alongside the Alawite-backed Assad regime against the Sunni rebels in Syria. Many analysts considered Hezbollah instrumental in ousting the rebels from Qusayr, a strategic outpost for both sides. Now they have set their eyes on the rebel stronghold of Aleppo.

Hezbollah's intervention was no doubt partially instigated by Sunni jihadists from the Gulf backing the rebels. Their involvement probably factored into the Pakistani Taliban's decision to deploy its own forces in support of the Islamist faction of rebels.  

Syria has a long history of manipulating and stirring the sectarian pot in Lebanon. In 1976, Sulieman Franjieh, the Christian president, invited Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar Al-Assad's father, to intervene in the Lebanese Civil War. After the Christians parted ways with Syria, Syrian interests became virtually synonymous with Hezbollah's interests, largely on account of their shared identity with the Assad regime as Shi'as.

The 1989 Taif Agreement, which ended the war and established Lebanon's current parliamentary guidelines, implicitly allowed Syria to maintain a military presence in Lebanon, where it remained until international pressure forced it to withdraw in the wake of Rafik Hariri's assassination.

Mired in the midst of its own war, the embattled Assad regime continues to ignite and exploit the shaky tensions between Sunni and Shi'a factions in Lebanon. The violence is most prevalent on the Lebanese-Syrian border, such as in the town of Arsal. As in the case of Jamo's assassination, it is rarely clear whether the perpetrators are from Syria or Lebanon itself. In one obvious instance of Syrian transgressions, Syrian helicopters fired on Arsal as it pursued rebels fleeing across the border, prompting a rare threat of retaliation from the Lebanese army. In a more opaque incident, anonymous gunmen killed four Shi'as repairing their car in June.

Nevertheless, Mohammed Darrar Jamo lived in Sarafand, far from the border, and his assassination is indicative of how the sectarian violence is spreading throughout the entire country. In Sidon, a Lebanese city on the Mediterranean, Sheik Ahmed Al-Assir, a Salafist cleric, has publicly criticized Hezbollah's support for Al-Assad and threatened to kick them out of Sidon after they attacked his brother in a car.

Assir's armed supporters then began attacking offices of both Sunni and Shi'a supporters of Hezbollah, prompting both pro and anti Hezbollah rallies to devolve into armed conflict in scenes terrifyingly reminiscent of Lebanon's 15-year civil war. Eventually, the typically cautious military intervened after alleged Sunni attacks on army check points, leading to two days of open battle with the sheik's supporters before clearing the streets.

As extremists on both sides edge Lebanon closer to another civil war, the caretaker government deemed that opening the polls was too risky. It postponed the elections that were due to be held last June, thereby prompting massive protests outside of parliament in Beirut.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the interim government does not have the authority to replace retired members of its military council, leaving the army without firm leadership or guidance as Lebanon's national security becomes ever more volatile.

As the Syrian war becomes more bitter and protracted, so too do the sectarian tensions of Lebanon. The best chance to avoid a return to the country's war-torn past is to end the conflict in Syria. Sadly, that seems exceedingly unlikely.

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Bryant Harris

Bryant Harris is a reporter with Inter Press Service News. He has worked in Muscat, Oman and was a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco. He graduated from UW-Madison in 2011 with a BA in Middle East Studies.

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