- - Monday, May 14, 2012

BEIRUT — Syria’s conflict is increasing instability in Lebanon, which already is grappling with sectarian tensions, a crumbling economy and a weak, divided government, even as it has so far avoided the popular uprisings of its Middle East neighbors.

“The entire region is destabilized,” said Bassem Chit, a Lebanese activist in Beirut.

Two rival neighborhoods in the tense northern city of Tripoli were on lockdown amid new sectarian clashes spilling over from the conflict in Syria. The violence broke out over the weekend after Lebanese security forces tried to arrest a leading Sunni Islamist on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization.

Sunni Lebanese say they are being targeted for the help they have been giving co-religionists fleeing the oppression in Syria. Their neighborhood abuts a district heavily populated with Alawites, the sect to which Syrian President Bashar Assad belongs.

With two more deaths reported in Tripoli Monday, the toll from the recent fighting now has reached five dead and nearly 50 wounded, with shops, schools and businesses shuttered, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.

A Sunni gunman fires in a front of burned car on Sunday, May 13, 2012, during a clash in Tripoli, Lebanon. (AP Photo)
A Sunni gunman fires in a front of burned car on Sunday, ... more >

Balancing act

Politics in Lebanon have long been a delicate balancing act. The Lebanese are divided into 18 different religious-ethnic groups who frequently shift alliances but hold tight to their power in a system designed to maintain the status quo.

These disparate groups break down into two factions depending on their feelings toward Mr. Assad.

The current government, controlled by the March 8th coalition, led by the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah, has studiously avoided any conflict with Syria.

Last month, for example, Lebanese officials said they seized shipments of heavy arms intended for the Syrian opposition in an attempt to comply with the Syrian regime’s request for tighter border controls.

Parts of the country, in particular the north, which includes the port city of Tripoli near the Syrian border, is predominantly populated by Sunni Muslims firmly opposed to Mr. Assad.

The Sunni Future Party is the backbone of the opposition March 14th coalition, formed in 2005 to push for the removal of the Syrian military, which at the time had occupied the country for more than 20 years.

Since the violence in Syria escalated late last year, the Lebanese Sunni Muslim groups in the border region have been helping the 10,000 officially registered Syrian refugees as well as the opposition in their attempt to oust Mr. Assad.

There also have been regular protests against the Syrian regime there.

Many Lebanese worry that if the conflict in Syria breaks down on sectarian lines of Sunni versus Shia, the violence could spread into Lebanon, where such tensions are always just beneath the surface.

Story Continues →