Syria's civil war was doomed from the very beginning to spill into Lebanon. Trouble started last year shortly after peaceful demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad's regime turned violent, and it started again last week when sectarian clashes ripped through the northern city of Tripoli, the second-largest in Lebanon after Beirut, and turned parts of it into a war zone.
Sunni militiamen from the neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh are slugging it out again with militants from the adjacent Alawite stronghold of Jabal Mohsen. They have transformed their corner of Lebanon into a mirror of the Syrian war, in which Sunni rebels are waging pitched battles with the Alawite-dominated military and government. As of Wednesday, the death toll in Tripoli was twelve, and a few more were killed yesterday. More than a hundred have been wounded.
Tensions are also increasing between Lebanon's Sunnis, who support the Syrian uprising, and Lebanon's Shias, who support the Assad regime and Hezbollah. Syrian rebels recently kidnapped a man they say is a Hezbollah member; his Lebanese clan members ran around southern Beirut with AK-47s and ski masks and kidnapped almost two dozen Syrian Sunnis and even a Turkish citizen in Lebanon.
Some reporters are describing the violence as some of the worst since the Lebanese civil war that raged from 1975-1990 -- so far a bit of an exaggeration, with numbers still insignificant compared to the thousands killed, tortured, and maimed next-door in Syria. But the numbers could easily mushroom, transforming the entire Lebanese political scene for the worse.
Assad's occupation of Lebanon was terminated seven years ago by the Beirut Spring, but the two countries still function to an extent as a single political unit. Syria may no longer have its smaller neighbor under direct military rule, but it has been deliberately exporting its violence, dysfunction, and terrorism since the 1970s. Its hegemony there was partially restored when Hezbollah invaded Beirut in 2008, forcing anti-Syrian parties to surrender much of their power at gunpoint.
Even if Assad had no interest in mucking around in Beirut's internal affairs, however -- even if Lebanon were entirely free of Syrian influence -- we should still expect to see the conflict spill over. The Lebanese could not build a firewall even if the Syrians wanted to help them – but definitely not while terrified Syrian refugees are holing up in the county, and not when Hezbollah has a vested interest in keeping its patron and armorer in charge in Damascus, and not with Sunnis and Alawites living cheek-by-jowl in the north.