- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Lebanon came dangerously close to the precipice Sunday, and risked being pushed back into the chaos and madness of civil war when a protest of a published caricature of the prophet Muhammad turned ugly.

The Beirut riots followed a tense day of protests in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Saturday the Danish and Norwegian embassies were torched, and attempts to attack the United States and French embassies were thwarted.

“Syria is a country where protests don’t just occur. Protests like this don’t happen without the support of the government,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

History buffs may find it interesting that some instigators of Sunday’s troubles in Beirut belong to the same radical Palestinian faction that triggered the incident in 1975 that plunged Lebanon into its 16-year civil war. Lebanese judiciary and security forces say they have begun interrogating about 200 of 441 rioters arrested after Sunday’s disturbances. Among them are 77 Syrians, 42 Palestinians, believed members of the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, led by Ahmad Gebril; 25 stateless Arabs (Bedouins); and 38 Lebanese Sunni Muslims.

In April 1975, Palestinian gunmen belonging to the PFLP-GC, on their way back to the Tel el-Zaatar refugee camp from a military parade in Beirut, passed in front of a church in east Beirut being inaugurated by Christian Phalangist Party chief Pierre Gemayel. Moments earlier unidentified gunmen had opened fire on the church in a drive-by shooting.

When a bus carrying the PFLP-GC commandos and their families approached the church, Christian militiamen, fearing they were about to be attacked a second time, opened fire. They killed 27 Palestinians. The rest, as they say, is history. But it is a history still very fresh in the minds of many Lebanese.

Among Sunday’s melange of Syrians, Palestinians and others involved in the rioting, it appears some tried to instigate sectarian violence by attacking a Maronite Church in east Beirut, as well as the Danish legation.

Some of the demonstrators were reported to have fired their guns randomly at apartment buildings housing Christians. Fortunately, the provocations failed. The Christians avoided falling into the trap and did not respond to the gunfire, leaving that task to the Lebanese police and military.

Several eyewitnesses confirm it was by no means accidental the Beirut events came a day after similar happenings in Damascus. Demonstrators were directed and the event appeared well orchestrated. Many rioters were bused in from Syria and the north Lebanese port of Tripoli, eyewitnesses say.

So just who may be responsible for promoting anti-European sentiments in Syria and for trying to destabilize Lebanon?

Some people may brush it off as just another conspiracy theory, but as with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese and the international community are pointing fingers at Damascus. Lebanese Christians and Muslims — politicians as well as religious leaders — accused the Syrians of “infiltrating plants” in the demonstration, which was initially meant to be peaceful. Druze leader Walid Jumblat accused Syria of responsibility for sending these “plants” to the demonstration to incite sectarian strife in Lebanon.

Thankfully, history did not repeat itself Sunday. The intent to create havoc and ignite sectarian violence failed. Some Lebanese say it had the reverse effect. In a meeting of the Lebanese Cabinet Monday, government ministers praised the Christians of Ashrafieh neighborhood, (where the rioting occurred) for responsible behavior and resisting provocation.

Eyewitnesses report the intervention by Muslim clerics, seen pushing back troublemakers who were throwing rocks and breaking windows, helped calm the Christians in east Beirut. As one resident of the Lebanese capital put it, the riots and violence were widely perceived as “another Syrian attempt to bring chaos back to Lebanon.”

Lebanon’s Muslim community came out in unison in condemning the riots and is pressing the government to act. Several observers in Beirut say this was an attempt by Damascus to alleviate the pressure on Syria brought about by the international investigation into the Hariri murder.

In a part of the world where everyone loves a good conspiracy theory, this one is as good as any.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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