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Lebanon drifts toward renewed civil war

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"We lurch from crisis to crisis, with superficial calms in between. But the crises are coming closer and could soon merge into a single, all-consuming crisis."

So warned Muhammad Shatah last month. Two weeks later Shatah, Lebanon's 62-year-old former finance minister and ambassador to Washington, was dead, killed along with seven others when a remote-controlled bomb punched a fireball into his passing car on Dec. 27.

Around the site of the blast in Beirut's central business district, and across other posh parts of Lebanon's capital, construction cranes loom amid a ceaseless racket of pile drivers. Such relentless industry testifies to Lebanon's resilience, despite the proximity of the blood bath across the Syrian border, barely an hour's drive from Beirut.

More than one million Syrians already have fled to safety here, and may now make up a quarter of Lebanon's population, previously four million. Syrians now man the building crews, and it's largely Syrian flight capital and war profits that keep housing prices high.

As Shatah suggested, however, and as his death underscored, the flimsy barriers that have spared this tiny country from a far greater deluge of woes grow weaker by the day. Papered over for two decades, the cracks from Lebanon's own brutal civil war of 1975 to 1990 have widened and spread.

Syria is partly the cause. As its popular uprising has descended into a vicious slugging match between increasingly chauvinistic sects, tensions have grown among Lebanon's own complex religious mix. Around a third of its people are Sunni Muslim, a third Shia and a third Christian.

Lebanon's Sunnis broadly share the rage of Syria's battered Sunni majority. Its Shias share the fears of the defiant minorities that form the core of support for Bashar Assad's regime. The regional rivalries that have made Syria a proxy war, chiefly between Shia Iran and arch-Sunni Saudi Arabia, also are reflected in Lebanon.

For three decades, Iran's Revolutionary Guard has nurtured and funded Hezbollah, Lebanon's powerful Shia party-cum-militia. Disciplined and ruthless, Hezbollah in effect has used Shia unity to gain hegemony over much of Lebanon's feeble state, and a veto over policy. Alarmed by military setbacks to Assad's regime earlier last year, the party belatedly plunged into Syria's fray. Its fighters have helped relieve Damascus, the Syrian capital, but at a painful cost: Perhaps 500 Hezbollah combatants have died in the fighting, independent analysts say, more than during the war it fought with Israel in 2006.

Politically fractious and geographically dispersed, Lebanon's Sunnis have no similarly dominant militia, and Syria's strife has sapped the influence of traditionally moderate Sunni leaders. With Lebanon's current government unable to control arms smuggling, radical Sunni gangs have proliferated, many with links to Syrian rebels.

Lebanon's Christians also remain split. Some back a Hezbollah-led, pro-Syrian political front known as March 8th. Others, along with much of Lebanon's diverse but militarily impotent political center, back the rival, pro-Western, Saudi-supported March 14th group, of which Shatah was a figurehead.

For the first part of Syria's 33-month-long war, the stark polarization in Lebanon was contained within its shaky, nominally democratic politics, bound by rules that allot each sect a proportion of government posts and powers. Last March the elected prime minister, by tradition a Sunni, resigned in protest against Hezbollah obstruction. After much wrangling the almost-evenly split parliament designated a new prime minister, but so far hostility between the March 8th and March 14th groups has prevented him forming a cabinet, leaving his predecessor, Najib Mikati, to run a weakened caretaker government.

Lebanon's rivalries have begun leaking out of politics and into violence, however. In 2013, nearly 100 Lebanese died in bombings that targeted, variously and at a growing rate of frequency, mosques in the largely Sunni city of Tripoli, Shia-dominated suburbs of Beirut and, in November, Iran's embassy. Assassins struck down a senior Hezbollah official as well as Shatah, whose death follows a chain of killings that have shredded the March 14th leadership, starting with a bomb in February 2005 that killed the faction's founder, Rafik Hariri, who had served five stints as Lebanon's prime minister.

Sunni radical groups have claimed responsibility for the attacks on Hezbollah, but the Shia militia and its allies still pin the blame broadly on March 14th, the Sunnis' most popular movement. This group's supporters, while not excluding direct Syrian involvement, are increasingly open in charging Hezbollah with a campaign of terror against its foes. Mourners at Shatah's funeral chanted insults against Hezbollah, as one orator vowed to liberate Lebanon from "occupation by illegal arms," a reference to complaints that Hezbollah poses as a resistance force against Israel while in reality using its armed might to blackmail weaker political rivals.

So far held in check by shared memories of Lebanon's descent into civil war 38 years ago, such tensions may yet explode. A long-delayed trial of four fugitive Hezbollah men charged with killing Hariri is due to start in an international court at The Hague on Jan. 16, and, unless Lebanon's parliament, which has not met in months, chooses a new president by the spring, the country will enter a dangerous constitutional vacuum.

"We face having no legitimate government at a time of the greatest challenge to the Lebanese state," says Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center, a Beirut-based think-tank. "What we have now can't be called a civil war, and it may not become one. But it is a shadow war."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 6, 2014 $sourceSection0

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