As the Syrian regime fights for its life while still greater numbers of people join the popular protests, neighbouring Lebanon looks on anxiously fearing spill over from Syria could spark sectarian clashes in the mosaic and often fractured nation.
U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Michael Williams, recently raised the potential for “confessional clashes in Lebanon” spilling over the border from Syria. “There is a great worry in Lebanon about this,” he said.
The two countries, for better or worse, share a complicated and at times bloody history. Although Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon in 2005 ending a three decades long occupation, Damascus still wields great influence over its much smaller neighbour.
Accusations are regularly levelled from Beirut that the Syrian regime is interfering in Lebanon’s domestic politics, including smuggling weapons to Syrian-backed armed groups in Lebanon such as Hezbollah. Pro-West Lebanese politicians also accuse Syria of responsibility for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, as well as a string of prominent politicians and journalists in 2005.
Tensions between Syria and Lebanon have in the past played out in sectarian clashes between Sunni Islamists in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, and their Allawite neighbours, who are of the same sect as President Assad and much of the ruling elites in the Syrian regime.
On a visit to the leader of Tripoli’s Allawites a reporter found his office hung with a portrait of Hafez al-Assad, from whom President Assad inherited power.
Some Lebanese politicians also blame Syria for the rise of Fatah al-Islam, a militant Islamist group which fought an armed struggle in 2007 with the Lebanese army leaving the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared in ruins.
In Lebanon political power is divided between its 18 officially recognized religious sects, for many of whom the 15-year bloody civil war is still a vivid memory. Many fear a cornered regime in Damascus will seeks to exploit sectarian tensions in its fractured neighbour to divert attentions from its domestic crisis.
“There are no indications on the ground of any religious or sectarian tensions,” said MP Samir Jisr, from the pro-West March 14th bloc.
"However, we fear that if the Syrians were cornered they will import the crisis to Lebanon."