Syrian conflict spills over border into Lebanon

Tripoli People in Tripoli watch with trepidation the growing violence in Syria

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Last weekend, fighting erupted between supporters of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, and those who oppose his regime. Not on the streets of Homs, Deraa or elsewhere in Syria, but in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

That Syria's sectarian violence would spill over into Lebanon was perhaps inevitable. This is a country that has always been dominated by its more powerful neighbour.

A single street in this rundown city divides the warring Alawite and Sunni communities.

For 24 hours last week, rival factions exchanged heavy gunfire, between districts only a few metres apart.

Start Quote

We didn't start all this talk of sectarianism - our opponents did”

End Quote Ali Fodda Spokesman for Tripoli's Alawite community

Three people were killed and many more were injured.

Walls riddled with bullets and damaged buildings betray the intensity of the fighting.

The Alawites in the Jabal Muhsin district are members of the same Shia sect as President Assad and support him.

The Sunnis in Bab al-Tabbana back the uprising against him, which, though cross-sectarian, has seen Syria's Sunni majority suffer the brunt of the state's crackdown on dissent.

'Destabilise'

The Sunni community dominates Tripoli - their fighters and security apparatus are the real power on the streets.

Sami Masri Sami Masri says Syrian agents are seeking to destabilise Lebanon

Sami Masri is a Sunni cleric who says there is no doubt how the violence began.

"The Assad regime in Syria is sending its agents in every day to destabilise the situation here," he told me in his small, sparsely furnished apartment.

"Syrians might not actually get their hands dirty, but get their allies in the Alawite community to act on their behalf."

In a small city where opposing communities live cheek-by-jowl, regular Lebanese army soldiers now patrol the narrow ceasefire line.

They are wary of being seen to favour either side, and few expect the truce to hold, especially as Syrian activists from both sides seek to influence events from inside Lebanon.

Uneasy streets

Less than a mile from the Sunni heart of Tripoli, giant posters of Bashar al-Assad look down on the Alawite community.

Leaders of this largely secular minority reject allegations that they are proxies for a foreign government.

Lebanese troops patrol Tripoli (12 February 2012) Regular Lebanese army soldiers now patrol the narrow ceasefire line in Tripoli

Ali Fodda, a spokesman, dismissed the suggestion out of hand.

"We are first and foremost Lebanese and can't be used by anyone," he said. "But we're also part of a wider coalition of resistance, whose leader is President Assad.

"We didn't start all this talk of sectarianism - our opponents did."

Across the country, people watch with trepidation the growing violence in Syria.

Ultimately, Lebanon may not be able to avoid being dragged into the Syrian conflict - directly or indirectly.

The streets of Tripoli feel uneasy, almost anticipating more friction between pro- and anti-Assad factions.

For Syria, Lebanon and the wider region these are uncertain days.

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