Friday, February 23, 2018

Rage over Syria spills into Lebanon

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The tensions between the two neighborhoods were building for days in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. On one side live Sunni Muslims who hate the Syrian regime. On the hill above are members of the Alawite sect, Syrian President Bashar Assad's strongest backers.

Overnight, the tempers exploded. For hours, gunmen in the two districts traded automatic weapons fire and volleys of rocket-propelled grenades across the avenue that divides them, ironically named Syria Street.

By the time a shaky truce was reached Saturday, two people were dead — one from each side — and 12 people wounded, half of them soldiers trying to stop the clashes.

The fighting underscored how the bloodshed in Syria, where Assad's regime is cracking down on an 11-month-old uprising against his rule, is inflaming emotions in its tiny neighbor Lebanon. The already deep divisions between Lebanese are being strained, and many fear Syria's chaos will bleed over across the border.

Lebanon is sharply split along sectarian lines, with 18 religious sects. But it also has a fragile political fault line precisely over the issue of Syria.

There is an array of diehard pro-Syrian Lebanese parties and politicians, as well as support for the regime on the street level. There is an equally deep hatred of Assad among other Lebanese who fear Damascus is still calling the shots here. The two sides are the legacy of, and backlash against, Syria's virtual rule over Lebanon from 1976 to 2005 and its continued influence since.

In Beirut last week, hundreds of Lebanese demonstrators faced off outside the Russian Embassy after Russia and China vetoed a Western- and Arab-backed resolution at the U.N. Security Council aimed at pressing Assad to step down. An army cordon separated the anti-Assad crowd from the president's supporters to prevent clashes.

"Bashar, we are your men!" supporters shouted unanimously.

"Come on, Bashar, leave!" opponents chanted back.

Many of Lebanon's Christians, meanwhile, have been laying low on the subject of Syria.

Their community is divided between pro- and anti-Syrian camps. Even some Christian opponents of Damascus are hesitant about backing an uprising they fear will bring Sunni fundamentalists to power in Syria.

Patriarch Bechara al-Rai, head of the Maronite Church, which had long been critical of Damascus, raised an uproar in September when he warned that the Christian presence in the Mideast could be threatened if Assad falls. He said Assad should be given a chance to reform.

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