The streets of Tariq al-Jadideh, in Lebanon’s capital Beirut, were transformed into an urban war zone Sunday night, as men armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns exchanged fire. Tripoli has been plagued by sectarian violence between factions of the city’s Alawite and Sunni communities for over a week. A branch of Shiite Islam, much of Tripoli’s Alawite community supports Syrian President Assad’s regime, whereas many Sunnis are opposed to it.
The clashes began after supporters of the country’s Future Movement, loyal to former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, attacked the offices of the pro-Assad organisation, the Arab Movement Party, and didn’t end until around 4am the next morning. At least two people were killed and the neighbourhood was left in ruins, with burnt debris and overturned motor bikes littering the streets.
The fighting, which sparked concern that the conflict in neighbouring Syria had spilled over into Lebanon, erupted hours after Sunni cleric Abdul-Wahid and his bodyguard were shot dead by soldiers at a checkpoint in Lebanon’s northern port city of Tripoli on May 20.
While the details surrounding Sunday’s shootings remain unclear, the Lebanese army quickly issued a statement expressing its deep regret over the incident and saying it would launch an investigation. Prime Minister Najib Mikati also sought to assuage fears by stressing his government’s commitment to maintaining peace in the country by any means possible.
“The government is determined to continue to shoulder its national responsibilities amid this critical period in Lebanon and the region, and it will take all measures necessary to preserve civil peace”, he said.
Concerns over regional stability
Despite Mikati’s efforts to ease tensions, outrage over the deaths rapidly spread across the country in the form of demonstrations. The violence sparked fears over Lebanon’s stability throughout the region, prompting Kuwait’s foreign ministry to alert its citizens to leave or avoid travel to the country.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also expressed alarm over the situation in Lebanon, saying he was “extremely troubled about the risk of an all-out civil war in Syria and was concerned about the outbreak of related violence in Lebanon”.
According to FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Beirut, Perrine Mouterde, an uneasy calm has since returned to the city with the military deployed in the Tariq al-Jadideh neighbourhood, where the fighting took place.
Clashes a ‘dilemma’ for Lebanese PM
The recent unrest in Lebanon has highlighted how events in Syria are not always contained by the border that lies between the two countries.
Although it is not the first time events in Syria have had deadly consequences on Lebanese soil, the recent violence could have repercussions for Prime Minister Mikati, whose religious background and political backing have made him both a multi-faceted leader and a seeming walking contradiction. Mikati, a Sunni Muslim who hails from Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, became prime minister in 2011 with the backing of Hezbollah, which is known for its close ties to Syria.
“The prime minister is confronted with a dilemma”, Ziad Majed, a Middle East expert and assistant professor at the American University of Paris, told FRANCE 24. “On the one hand there is the Sunni community, on the other hand there is Hezbollah and Assad. He has to somehow deal with the fact that the Syrian government wants, at whatever cost, to portray all Sunnis as extremists. However, the prime minister, as a Sunni, can’t afford to cut himself off from the international community and other Arab countries”.
However, according to Barah Mikaïl, a research director at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), Mikati’s diverse background may be an advantage, and maintaining an even leadership could play a key role in keeping tensions within the country from boiling over.
“Najib Mikati is one of the guarantees for stability in the country, which is why I think that his political stance will remain balanced between all the different parties on the ground. He has no interest in changing his position”, Mikaïl told FRANCE 24.
Although tensions remain high, both Majed and Mikaïl agree that the country’s key political actors have little desire to stoke the situation into a full-blown conflict.
“Everyone will try to keep the situation from degenerating because if it goes in any other direction, it means that communities will have to enter into another war. No one wants that”, said Mikaïl.