Relative calm has returned to Lebanon after three days of mourning for sheikhs Ahmad Abdul Wahed and Mohamad Hussein Merheb. Meanwhile, political bickering between the March 14 opposition coalition and the Mikati government continues to escalate. Nevertheless, the tone of accusations regarding the responsibility of the army and its command for these killings has softened and almost disappeared.
For their part, after a general meeting convened in Beirut, the March 14 leaders held Prime Minister Najib Mikati and his government fully responsible for the shooting in Akkar as well as for the armed clashes that followed in Tripoli and in the Beirut neighborhood of Tariq al-Jadideh. In a communique read by former prime minister Fuad Siniora, they said,"...the current government is complicit [in the conspiracy against Lebanon] and is incapable of handling the national responsibility, given the nature of its formational composition and given the fact that it is an extension of the Syrian-Iranian axis that does not believe in Lebanon's stability and sovereignty."
Violent clashes have begun in Tripoli between Alawite supporters of the Syrian regime and Sunni backers of the Syrian opposition. This violent escalation--a consequence of the ongoing Syrian crisis--could hardly have come as a surprise. It was clear that events in Syria would have a major impact on Lebanon's stability, primarily because of Syria's strong influence in Lebanon and the tight ethnic and political links of the Alawites in Tripoli with the Assad regime.
Nor could the negative effects of the violence in Syria be attributed only to the steady influx of Syrian refugees seeking shelter in Lebanon. Additional causes are recurrent cross-border shootings and violations of Lebanese sovereignty by the Syrian army as well as repeated abductions of Syrian dissidents residing in Lebanon.
A new round of violence began on May 12, 2012 following the arrest of Sunni Islamist Shadi al-Mawlawi by the Lebanese General Security Directorate. Mawlawi was accused of supporting terrorist activities against the Assad regime, a claim totally rejected by the local community and Islamist factions in Tripoli. As a result of this "illegal" arrest, protests exploded in the city, soon escalating into a full-fledged violent confrontation between the Sunnis of Bab-Attabanih and the Alawites of Jabal Mohsin that has thus far resulted in eight deaths and a dozen wounded.
Violence spread to Beirut after the turmoil fueled by the deaths of the two sheikhs. Clashes occurred mostly during the night in the area of Tariq al-Jadideh when gunmen from rival groups opposing and supporting the Assad regime opened fire on each other. Two people were killed and 16 injured in the fight.
There are several factors behind this rapid escalation. Most important is the linkage between the uprising in Syria and Lebanese Sunni sympathy for the Syrian opposition, especially in the north of Lebanon. The people there have provided shelter to Syrian refugees and have been accused by the Syrian regime and its proxies of supporting Syrian rebels by smuggling weapons and funneling money coming from Gulf countries, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
During the first year of the Syrian uprising, the Damascus regime seemed to be content that a friendly government was ruling in Beirut even though that government announced it would remain neutral and disassociated itself from the Syrian crisis. Now things have changed: the Syrian regime, increasingly sensitive to external and internal pressures, is demanding more support from its allies in Lebanon. It has turned to those allies both inside and beyond the Mikati government to provide the necessary support for its claim that terrorist and Islamist groups from al-Qaeda and other organizations are crossing the Lebanese border into Syria and that the smuggling of large quantities of weapons is continuing.
The Syrian regime leverages these accusations to undermine the opposition and justify its violent actions against its own people. Lebanese Minister of Defense Fayez Ghosn indeed provided the requested information even though there are no indications that anything of the kind is happening from Akkar or Tripoli or the Ersal area in the Bekaa.
Damascus used the information provided by its proxies in Lebanon in a letter presented by its ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council. It accused Lebanese political factions of incubating terrorist groups from al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood that are attacking the security of the Syrian people and undermining the ceasefire plan of UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan. The letter noted ongoing attempts to smuggle to the rebels large quantities of arms and ammunition that are arriving in Lebanon illegally by sea and by air.
Against all denials of Jaafari's accusations by the president, prime minister and interior minister of Lebanon, Damascus maintains that it is facing a terrorist conspiracy funded and directed from abroad, not least by Saudi Arabia and Qatar that are arming the rebels to oust Assad.
The fear today in Lebanon is that, with the empowerment of Islamist groups in Tripoli and Akkar that are the most vocal and active supporters of the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime could retaliate against them as part of a strategy of undermining the Syrian opposition and punishing Assad's adversaries in Lebanon.
The international community has expressed strong concern regarding the high risks Lebanon faces as a result of the fallout from the Syrian revolution. The risks can only be aggravated as Lebanon sinks deeper into its own political crisis, with sharp divisions among communities and political parties, against the backdrop of the hot debate over whether to support the Syrian revolution or the Assad regime.
Facing such high risks and uncertainties, Lebanese must ask themselves the question, "What can we do to stop the Assad regime from unleashing its wrath against our country?" The safest path is probably for Lebanese to respond favorably and sincerely to President Michel Suleiman's call to resume the National Dialogue as soon as possible.-Published 31/5/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org