The conventional explanation given by opponents of NATO or UN intervention in Syria is that such an intervention will precipitate a civil war in Syria, a shallow explanation given the fact that there is already a civil war there which is claiming tens of lives every day despite the "cease fire" (what a sad joke), and the Annan "peace plan" (another sad joke) .Well, with sectarian violence spreading in Lebanon, the explanation is getting even shallower... as now we are witnessing the beginning of potentially another civil war, this time in neighboring Lebanon.
The troubles in Lebanon have concentrated until today in the northern port city of Tripoli, the second largest in the country, and they are spreading now also to the capital city of Beirut. What is in common between the events in both cities is that they pit Sunnis against Shi'ites in Beirut and Alawites in Tripoli. In other words, the conflict in Syria, which some blindfolded commentators and experts still refuse to acknowledge as sectarian, is rapidly spreading to Lebanon, a country the population of which knows a thing or two about sectarian civil wars.
Let's start with Tripoli, a city of over half a million inhabitants, where the Alawite minority constitutes about 10%. Alawites came to the city with the active support of the Hafiz Assad Alawite regime in Syria, in order to strengthen support to Syria in a sensitive area of Lebanon. The investment paid handsome dividends to the Syrian regime, when in 1973, the then Sh'ii Mufti of Lebanon, Imam Musa Sadr -- the famous leader who later made the mistake of his young and eventful life, and went to Libya, only to be murdered by the Gaddafi regime -- recognized the Alawites in Tripoli as Shi'ites.
Later on, during and after the Lebanese civil war of 1975/6, Tripoli became a stronghold of pro-Iraqi Sunni Ba'athists, led by a local member of the Lebanese Parliament, Abd-AL Majid Rafi'i. The Syrian Ba'athists, with the enthusiastic support of the local Alawites more or less disposed of Raf'I'i and his supporters, but could not do the same to the Sunni fundamentalist movements which mushroomed in the city, as a response to the growing Alawite influence. Developments in Tripoli simply mean a possible, though not formal, subjugation of the Lebanese city to the regime in Damascus.
It is worth noting that Syria does have support among some Sunnis in Tripoli, mainly the important Karami clan, as well as supporters of the current Lebanese PM Njib Mikati, himself a Tripolitanian, though it is clear that the Sunni street is dominated by supporters of anti-Syrian Ulama. One of those, Sheikh al-Wahid, was killed with his bodyguard by Lebanese soldiers, and the implosion was quick to erupt, and in the fighting between the Sunni suburb of Bab Tabannah and the Alawite Jabal Muhsein there are casualties. The two sides use automatic weapons, mortars and shoulder missiles, another indication that there are so many weapons in Lebanon, of which many are smuggled into Syria.
For once, the Syrian regime does not lie when claiming that the rebels in the country are being supplied from Lebanon, as well as from other neighboring countries. In that case, the chicken came back to roost, as the Lebanese do to the Syrians what they have done to them for so many years. The Tripoli fighting is a sectarian conflict, not yet fought in full force, but likely to deteriorate if the Lebanese authorities will not effectively intervene.
This is something that the government of Mikati and President Suleiman will find hard to do, because to really stop the violence, they will have to send troops in, and dismantle both sides of their arms. Easier said than done, and those who monitor Lebanon will not risk too much of their money betting on this happening. So, in the absence of such an intervention, the small-scale fighting in Tripoli can very well Develop into a mayhem. While Tripoli is burning, Beirut is catching fire as well, and the fighting tonight there left fatalities, and was described as the heaviest In the city since May 2008, when Hezbollah solidified its control over large parts Of the capital. In the background, we have the unresolved Hariri murder investigation, which is a clear case of Sunni-Shi'I friction. A civil war in Lebanon is Still a long shot, but every big event start with small warning shots. This is exactly What is happening in Tripoli and as of tonight in Beirut. Many people in Lebanon Know all too well what price a civil war can exact from their country, and they go to sleep tonight very worried.