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13 April 2014

Lebanon tackles violent spillover from Syria

Syrian refugees from the town of Qara gather around a fire to keep themselves warm in a Syrian refugee camp on the Lebanese border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa ValleySoldiers patrol quiet streets where gunmen used to fight day and night – part of the Lebanese authorities’ most serious effort yet to contain spillover from Syria’s civil war since the three-year-old conflict began in its much larger neighbor.

But while many in Tripoli, 30 km (20 miles) south of the Syrian border, have welcomed what they see as an overdue clampdown, they also worry it could falter under renewed political bickering and a backlash by radical Sunni militants.

“Traffic is returning, the area is coming back to life,” said Ahmed Qashour, 57, raising his voice as armored vehicles rumbled past the tahini sesame-paste shop where he works on Syria Street, in the north of the Mediterranean port city.

“But what we want, what we’re asking of the government, is that this security plan continues – that it doesn’t stop.”

Syria’s civil war has divided Lebanon’s politicians, while gunbattles, car bombs and rocket attacks linked to Syria have killed scores of Lebanese and revived memories of the country’s own 15-year civil war that formally ended in 1990.

Disputes have been particularly acute over the Shi’ite movement Hezbollah’s move to send fighters to aid Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a fellow ally of Shi’ite Iran. Some Lebanese Sunnis have meanwhile joined the rebels.

The fact that the clampdown is happening now indicates a rare moment of agreement among international, regional and domestic players who all have an influence on Lebanese politics, analysts and officials say – although there is still plenty of scope for things to go wrong.

“There is an intersection of interests between all parties to have Lebanon stable these days,” said Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese army general and senior lecturer on geopolitics and war studies at the American University of Beirut.

“You cannot really afford to have Syria, Iraq and Lebanon – this axis of instability – going into havoc.”

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