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Julien Barnes-Dacey wrote this blog post in Beirut where he is conducting research for ECFR
Gunfire and small explosions echoed across the commercial district of Hamra here in Beirut last night, as renewed violence descended upon Lebanon's capital city, following an already tumultuous week. Details about the incident remain sketchy, with security officials claiming - to widespread scepticism - that the incident stemmed from a love quarrel rather than political ambitions. However, the incident has stoked growing fears that the country is on the brink of wider violence as civil war engulfs neighbouring Syria.
The current crisis began when a Sunni Islamist supporter of the Syrian opposition was arrested in the northern city of Tripoli. The arrest sparked days of tense clashes between pro and anti Assad camps in the city that left nine people dead. The situation escalated when an anti-Assad Sunni sheikh was shot dead by the army, once more in the north of the country. The killing provoked deadly clashes in Beirut.
For many the events point to the inevitability that the violence in Syria will spill across the border despite the government's avowed policy of dissociation from the conflict. The country's deep ties to Syria and confessional and political divisions, notably between the pro-Assad Shiite Hezbollah movement and the anti-Assad Sunni community, have raised fears that a similar conflict could take hold of Lebanon. For both, the conflict in Syria offers opportunities and challenges. For Hezbollah, Syria remains a crucial channel of support that must be maintained; for Sunnis the empowerment of their co-believers in Syria points to the possibility of greater independence from their long dominant neighbour and an opportunity to weaken Hezbollah, whose growing hold over power in Lebanon has increasingly come at their expense - a source of deep frustration. Meanwhile, There are also fears that Syria may look to stir up instability in the country as a warning to those intent on supporting the opposition.
And so the country is now gripped by widespread tension. Ever deeper political conflict and sectarian mobilisation is entrenching itself nationwide, while people are staying off the streets for fear of what might erupt. politicians are trying to calm the situation, calling for restraint, but the emotive forces gripping the country point to the risk of painful escalation. It is increasingly uncertain how able political leaders will be able to restrain their supporters in the face of perceived provocations. While there is sober optimism to be taken from the fact that Lebanon has withstood more than a year of conflict in Syria without witnessing breakdown, and that even these latest incidents have not set off a spiralling descent into the abyss, danger lurks forcefully. Even as, therefore, the conflict in Syria looms large, international focus must be turned to its vulnerable neighbour to ensure that it too does not get sucked into the maelstrom.
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