The eruption of sectarian clashes in Lebanon over the past few days is unsurprising. Really, it is wonder why it took so long.
The conflict in Syria is a 10-minute car ride from the second largest city, Tripoli, and Lebanon's capital Beirut is just another hour down the Beirut-Tripoli highway. But the ripples from the discord just beyond the border are only now becoming tangible. Lebanon as a nation is in many ways defined by the centuries-old cross-section of religions and sects that have resulted in tensions leading to war. It is possibly due in part to the sensitivity of this diversity that Lebanon has been cautious to get involved in the Syria conflict. This diversity also makes the small country more vulnerable to the effects of its byproducts.
But to quickly slap sectarian labels on events as they spark may be oversimplifying them. Like politics in any country, the reasons why certain things happen largely depends on who is telling the narrative. So far, the arrest of a pro-revolutionary in Tripoli, the killing of a Sunni, and the kidnapping of Shia pilgrims in Aleppo have caused reaction. Lebanon’s multiple sects and political affiliations and alliances have read into them what they choose in order to strengthen the narrative.
Pro-revolutionary Sunnis charge that Assad is running the show in Lebanon via its Shia ally Hezbollah. Indeed, the impact of nearly three decades of occupation is indelible. Moreover, the rise of ally Hezbollah over the past 20 years has broadened and solidified Syrian influence from within Lebanon as its proxy force. The organization outpowers the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Its political position as majority in the current government has further empowered it to influence Lebanon’s institutions. So, Syria was using Hezbollah to target the pro-revolutionary aiding the Free Syrian Army and was responsible for the killing of the Sheikh who had weapons stashed in his car.
This is what one television station reports. But another says they were attempting to carry out tasks for an al-Qaeda cell. And what about the Lebanese Shia pilgrims in Aleppo? They say the mostly Sunni Free Syrian Army (FSA) is certainly responsible. Thousands of Lebanon’s Shia rallied and burned tires to block access to roads, including the airport. Thankfully, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah admonished these reactions and called for calm. The spark for renewed sectarian strife has nonetheless been lit, and has the potential to harden the divide between the Sunni world of the Middle East against the Shia.
Yet is it possible that Lebanon, the country ravaged by decades of war and reactionary measures on all sides, could act as a stabilizing force for the Syrian conflict? One must question why it took so long – a full year – for the effects of the conflict in Syria to only now become visible. The feeling was in the air, palpable, but no one took action until a week ago. Granted, all that may have been needed was a good reason, like the killing of a Sunni sheikh by an allegedly pro-Syria Lebanese army or the abduction of a dozen Shia pilgrims by Syrian Sunni on their way back to Lebanon. But the resulting violence pales in comparison to the conflicts that a decade ago may have brought on full-scale war. Perhaps the Lebanese have reached a point where pain of war and the wisdom learned by experience has trumped the sectarian ties that bind.
This understanding may be what has staved off the extension of the Syrian conflict in Lebanon thus far. The trap of sectarianism is cyclical, but it can be broken. Perhaps this is only the beginning.