Lebanon's Little Syria

Most Lebanese certainly wished otherwise, but it was only a matter of time before the bloodshed that has overwhelmed Syria for the past 15 months arrived at their doorstep. The conflict has now come to the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, which possesses a social fabric and history that make it fertile ground for the long-awaited proxy war between enemies and allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The latest conflagration was triggered by the May 12 arrest of previously unknown Sunni Islamist activist Shadi al-Mawlawi and five others by Lebanon's General Security Directorate (GSD). Within hours of Mawlawi's arrest, Sunni protesters took to the streets, blocked the highway, and burned tires to demand his immediate release -- a call joined by the city's politicians and clerics. The standoff soon spiraled out of control: Armed men deployed in the poor Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh, battling with gunmen of the adjacent district of Jabal Mohsen, which is inhabited by staunchly pro-Assad members of Lebanon's small Alawite community. So far, the conflict, which has escalated to include rocket-propelled grenade and mortar attacks, has left five people dead and more than 100 wounded.

But there's more to this conflict than meets the eye. It seems that GSD officers mounted a trap -- Mawlawi was lured to a social services center under the pretext he would receive health care -- and had no valid warrant at the time of the arrest.

The agency later leaked that Mawlawi had returned days ago from Syria, where he allegedly partook in the rebellion, though it is impossible to confirm these claims. Lebanon's Sunni prime minister, Najib Mikati, a native of Tripoli, called the manner of the arrest "unacceptable," adding that he "rejected and condemned [it]" during a meeting of Lebanon's Higher Defense Council, the top body in charge of internal and external security. Notwithstanding this torrent of words, a military prosecutor charged the six men on May 14 with belonging to an "armed terrorist organization" and "plotting to carry out terrorist acts inside and outside of Lebanon." A Lebanese newspaper on May 15 quoted intelligence sources saying Mawlawi confessed to the accusations.

The arresting party is, to say the least, controversial. GSD is one of Lebanon's many competing security agencies, and it is perceived as the internal arm of Hezbollah. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who previously served as Hezbollah's and other Shiite factions' go-to man in military intelligence, heads the organization, which has a broad mandate that includes monitoring political activity, foreigners, and the media.

(…)The possibility that the violence in Tripoli will spread across Lebanon remains limited, but the situation is undeniably deteriorating. Mikati's strategy depends on the ability and willingness of each faction to control the more destructive tendencies of its followers. As the case of Tripoli demonstrates, however, this is easier said than done: Sunni groups, feeling triumphant or angry, may think (mistakenly) the time is opportune to strike a blow against their rivals at home, as well as Assad abroad. Hezbollah, militarily strong but politically on the defensive, may decide that preemptive action is warranted. Any of the two scenarios would throw Lebanon into a sectarian hell.

Emile Hokayem is senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The above article was published in foreignpolicy.com on May 15th, 2012.

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