Middle East

Threatened strike on Syria stokes Lebanon tensions

A Lebanese army armoured personnel carrier patrols the street in front of al-Takwa mosque where a second car bomb exploded in the port city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon 24 August, 2013
Image caption Lebanese troops patrol the coastal city of Tripoli where two explosions earlier this month left 42 people dead

In the Lebanese city of Tripoli, Syria Road divides the neighbourhoods of Bab Tabaneh and Gabal Mehsin along sectarian lines, with snipers on both sides.

The Sunni-Shia split that runs through the Middle East separates the neighbourhoods.

It is two months, locals say, since the last person was killed in a gun battle, but there are plenty who have been injured. The buildings are pockmarked from previous conflicts. Some of the bullet holes are relatively fresh.

As one side of the division honours its martyrs from the war in Syria with huge portraits hanging above roads and from apartment blocks, the other takes pot-shots at their posters.

Regional risk

The war in neighbouring Syria is felt directly on the streets of Lebanon. The suffering and the violence hasn't been kept just within Syria's borders. And as the conflict escalates, so too does the danger, not just to Lebanon, but to the entire region.

Even on the anti-Assad Sunni side, there are worries about expected strike against Damascus.

Ziad Ramadan, a former officer in the Syrian army, defected to the Free Syrian Army. He believes that the expected limited goals of any US intervention mean that President Assad's regime will not be destroyed.

"Toppling him could bring down the entire country," he said. "We want to bring down a criminal regime and not bring down an entire country, with all its institutions and capabilities. The US has to be careful and precise in choosing the targets in the city of Damascus."

In Beirut, Ibrahim Kanaan, an MP from the Free Patriotic Movement, says that any intervention will be a disaster for the region.

"There is no clear vision of what this war will achieve," he said. "What is the possibility of transforming the country into something better by striking? [In Afghanistan and Iraq] none of the declared goals, like the setting-up of democracy, peace and stability were achieved. We even have anti-Western regimes there now. We have killings every day, so what is the alternative?" he asked.

Violent spill-over

Lebanon is feeling the heat from Syria's war.

At the al-Takwa mosque they are clearing-up the wreckage from a massive car bomb which, together with a nearby explosion, left 42 dead and hundreds injured.

Image caption One of Lebanon's leading Sunni clerics says the Syrian government tried to kill him with this car bomb

Dramatic closed-circuit television footage showed the moment of the explosion. It shows those inside at prayer, then running barefoot for the exit immediately following the detonation.

Prominent Sunni Muslim cleric Sheikh Salem Rafii says he was the target; he had urged followers to go to Syria and fight the Assad regime. He is in no doubt who was to blame for this wreckage.

He said: "From the minute the explosion occurred, we definitely knew it was the Syrian regime. These were the kind of attacks they carried out when they controlled Lebanon in the 1980s."

This is a country that has chosen sides in its neighbour's conflict.

A week before, it was a Shia neighbourhood that was hit by a huge explosion just 100m from the headquarters of the powerful Shia militia, Hezbollah. Their fighters are battling alongside President Assad's soldiers. Some 27 people died in that attack. Again, many more were injured.

In Lebanon the memory of the horror of civil war has stopped the violence from escalating. But there is always the danger that war next door could tip the balance of power here. What it might do for the rest of the region can't yet be guessed.

Image caption Building workers from a firm linked to Hezbollah clear up a residential street in Beirut after a bomb attack