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Inside Story
What is driving Lebanon's sectarian clashes?
We ask if violence in the northern city of Tripoli is sparked by Syria's conflict or due to prevailing local grievances.
Last Modified: 24 Aug 2012 10:05

Street battles are continuing in Lebanon's two major cities – the capital Beirut and Tripoli in the north – as the unrest in neighbouring Syria spills over across the border.

In Tripoli, the violence between supporters and opponents of the government in Syria has taken on a sharp sectarian edge.

"It's very, very dangerous, a very grave situation in Lebanon. We [have] reached the point of breakdown, an escalation of tension, a breakdown on the part of the Lebanese army and the security of the country…we haven't seen anything like this since the break of the civil war."

- Kamel Wazne, a political analyst

In the past few days at least a dozen people have been killed and more than 100 injured.

On one side are members of the Alawite sect to which Bashar al-Assad, the beleaguered Syrian president, belongs. On the other are the Sunni residents of Tripoli who are in the majority.

Although it is not the first time Tripoli has experienced this kind of sectarian conflict, locals say the latest clashes have been particularly intense.

There is also concern that other sects in this deeply-divided country could be forced to take sides – transforming what is at present a local conflict into violence on a national scale.

Najib Mikati, the Lebanese prime minister, has blamed outside forces for the continuing violence, saying: "We have repeatedly warned against being drawn into this blaze that has spread around Lebanon… But it's clear that several parties wanted to push Lebanon into the conflict."

Warning of deep consequences, Mikati added: "The cabinet work is not a priority compared to what the country is witnessing when it comes to exposure to the Syrian crisis and attempts to transfer it to Lebanon. The country is in great danger."

"Unfortunately our country has been a battleground in which regional powers have been playing their games on our land and through intermediaries in our country… Our domestic situation is directly linked to what's going on in the region, especially in Syria."

- Naim Salem, an international relations professor, Notre Dame University

Northern Lebanon has seen a number of violent clashes in recent months, and the Tripoli neighbourhoods involved have grievances that are separate from the conflict in Syria.

Syria had a long military presence in Lebanon until 2005. Syria also has strong links to the Lebanon-based Hezbollah group.

On the regional diplomatic front, Lebanon had voted against suspending Syria from the Arab League.

As tensions rise in Tripoli, we ask: Could these localised conflicts spark nationwide violence? And what impact are they having on a country still largely fragmented into competing sects more than 20 years after the end of the civil war?

Joining presenter Mike Hanna for the discussion are guests: Kamel Wazne, a political analyst; Naim Salem, a professor of international relations at Notre Dame University in Lebanon; and Basem Shabb, a member of parliament from the Future Movement.

"The [Lebanese] government should assume some responsibility [for the localised unrest], which up to this point, it has not… Most Lebanese factions are aware of the risks and are very leery to be dragged into this… There are a few factors that favour the spillover being controlled."

Basem Shabb, an MP from the Future Movement


TRIPOLI – A FLASHPOINT IN LEBANON:

  • The city lies just over the border with Syria, a little more than 130 kilometres from the Syrian capital, Damascus.
  • As one of the most underprivileged areas in all of Lebanon, the city's economy is described as chronic and in need of wide-scale government action.
  • Poverty levels are high – more than half of Tripoli residents are considered poor – and concentrated in the Jebel Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh neighbourhoods, scenes of the current conflict.
  • Illiteracy and unemployment rates in the city are way above the national average.
  • With more than 500,000 people Tripoli is Lebanon's second largest city. The majority are Sunnis, with Alawites making up 10 per cent of the city's total population.
  • But the influx of refugees – Shia, Sunni and Christian – could impact on the delicate balance of sectarian representation in the region.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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