For a week in August it felt like the sectarian-tinged civil war in Syria had migrated across the border into Lebanon. Alawite gunmen loyal to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad exchanged mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and sniper fire with anti-Assad Sunni militiamen here in Lebanon’s second city of Tripoli. Seventeen people were killed and some 120 wounded, including eleven soldiers. It was the bloodiest of several bouts of sectarian violence that have erupted in Tripoli this year. And for many Lebanese, the fear was that their country was again about to become the theater for the region’s wars, a historical pattern it has experienced many times—but most brutally in the fifteen-year civil war that ended in 1990.
Tripoli is not the only chink through which the fallout from a collapsing Syrian regime has seeped into Lebanon. The abduction of a Turkish national and more than twenty Syrians by the Lebanese Meqdad clan followed the alleged kidnapping of a family member by the rebel Free Syrian Army in Damascus. And—in what could be the most incendiary subversion of all—Michel Samaha, Lebanon’s former information minister, was arrested and reportedly confessed to plotting bomb attacks on Lebanese religious and political figures sympathetic to the Syrian opposition. The assassinations were allegedly planned with Gen. Ali Mamluk, Syria’s national security chief, and had the imprimatur of President Assad. Samaha was pro-Syrian and said to be close to Lebanon’s powerful Shiite Islamist movement Hezbollah.
Any one of these events could have sucked Lebanon into the Syrian vortex. None did. Syria ruled Lebanon ruthlessly for nearly three decades, ending its occupation only in 2005. Yet whatever grip Damascus once had on Lebanese politics is clearly weakening, as the Syrian regime sinks deeper into crisis. One reason for Lebanon’s new relative freedom lies in history, especially in the differences between the Syrian and Lebanese civil wars. The Syrians have only recently entered theirs, which is becoming a bloody fight to the finish. The Lebanese remember theirs as a collective nightmare that no party or sect wants to revisit.
That history was felt in Tripoli. Most observers agree that the Sunnis came out on top in the latest round of fighting. Yet there was no question of Sunnis taking over Alawite areas. That would not only have wreaked carnage in a city where tens of thousands of Alawites live; it would have widened the main sectarian fault line in Lebanon, which is not Alawite versus Sunni but Sunni versus Shiite, potentially pitting Hezbollah against Sunni fighters across the country. “It’s not feasible,” said a senior security source quoted in Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper in August. “Nobody will give [political] cover to sectarian or racial attacks, especially against a minority like the Alawites.”
The same Lebanese survival instinct can be seen in the other crises. The Meqdads have freed all but four of their hostages in a good-will gesture to the Lebanese government. And they have renounced further abductions, which should make things a little less precarious for Syrians in Lebanon. Even the Samaha confession passed quietly, with barely a murmur from his onetime ally Hezbollah. The Islamist movement has made no comment on his arrest other than to signal that it thinks the evidence is “strong” against the former minister.
Contagion from Syria has also been checked by an unusually combative stance taken by the Lebanese government in Tripoli, where the army intervened to stop the fighting. Authorized by President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Lebanese troops seized arms and arrested gunmen in the city, including eighteen from a pro-Hezbollah clan. Mikati heads a government dominated by Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian parties. There was no protest.
How come? Lebanese sources say there is no question of Hezbollah ditching its alliance with the Syrian regime: Damascus remains essential to the movement’s supply lines from Iran. But neither is there any hiding the fact that its association with Assad has cost the movement dearly in the region. Hezbollah’s aim now is to prevent further erosion at home.
There seem to be three red lines emerging. The first is that the government—and only the government—is empowered to deal with any sectarian spillover from Syria. In Tripoli, Hezbollah was involved in neither the fighting nor the cease-fire. This explains why there was no outcry or violence after the arrest of the pro-Hezbollah clan members. Rather, Hezbollah presented itself as above the fray, as simply the Lebanese resistance to Israel.
Second, Hezbollah will preserve its “assets,” i.e., its political constituencies and formidable military arsenal, in any conflict born of the Syrian crisis. Some in Hezbollah apparently saw the clashes in Tripoli as a crude attempt to drag it into a sectarian conflict, but it resisted the bait.
Third, and most fundamental, Hezbollah will do everything it can to make sure Lebanon doesn’t descend into civil war as a result of the sectarian differences sharpened by the conflict in Syria. Such a descent would risk everything Hezbollah has built in the country since its founding as an Iranian offshoot in the early 1980s.
Most Lebanese will be reassured by these apparent red lines, though they know there may be pressure from Syria and Iran to amend them. Whatever its current robustness, the government may be too partial and the army too internally divided to prevent a Syrian-engineered conflict in Lebanon. But all are aware there can be no civil war without Hezbollah, the dominant political and military force in the country.
The problem is that wars in Lebanon are rarely decided only by the Lebanese.