Minorities in Lebanon Are Wary of Syrian War

BEIRUT — As the 20-month-long conflict in Syria continues to aggravate the frictions between Sunni and Shiite Muslim groups in Lebanon, other sectarian groups, and notably the country’s Christian and Druze minorities, are trying to distance themselves from the rising tensions.

That political dynamic was in evidence following the Oct. 19 car bomb that killed Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, head of the police’s intelligence branch and a key figure investigating the 2005 assassination of the former prime minister and Sunni leader, Rafik Hariri.

The car bombing struck Beirut’s mainly Christian Ashrafieh neighborhood in East Beirut, killing several people in addition to General Hassan and wounding dozens, including children.

Rather than take to the streets in protest, or stage high profile funerals, local residents and community leaders played down the carnage, saying that the target was the general rather the Christian community and that the location of the attack was more or less accidental.

Lebanon’s anti-Syrian Sunni groups in contrast quickly aimed accusations at Damascus and the Shiite Hezbollah. General Hassan, a Sunni from northern Lebanon, was heralded as a martyr by some. Small-scale gun battles broke out between Sunni and Shiite militias, while Sunni gunmen erected checkpoints in some areas and protesters built roadblocks of burning tires.

Outside the Sunni community, however, many Lebanese politicians equally opposed to Syria repudiated such actions as ill-advised.

“I think it will lead to nowhere, be it Sunni anger or be it Shia power or anger,” said Walid Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party, the main political faction of Lebanon’s Druze minority and a hereditary leader of the sect, in an interview last month at his family palace in the Chouf mountains, south of Beirut.

Mr. Jumblatt strongly opposes the Syrian regime, denouncing President Bashar al-Assad as “a mad guy who is burning Syria” and blaming Damascus for last month’s assassination as well as others — not least the 1977 killing of his own father, Kamal Jumblatt.

For all that, however, Mr. Jumblatt has made no move to reconcile with his former anti-Syrian allies in the March 14 bloc, from which he distanced himself after March 14 groups — including his own — suffered a military defeat against Hezbollah and its allies in May 2008.

In the wake of that setback, Mr. Jumblatt shifted allegiances to side for a while with the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition, though he has since edged away from that, too, since the start of the Syrian uprising.

With Lebanon’s Druze population numbering only about 200,000, analysts say Mr. Jumblatt’s maneuvering is primarily driven by short-term tactical considerations aimed at safeguarding one of Lebanon’s smallest communities.

While some Druze fighters in South Beirut have expressed frustration with his refusal to confront Hezbollah’s Shiite pro-Syrian militias, Mr. Jumblatt warned of the dangers of getting caught up in the Syrian conflict. Lebanon’s policy of disassociation, he said, “is the best chance we have. To be implicated will just ruin and destroy the country.”

Mr. Jumblatt said his strategic objective was to promote “a formula whereby we have a government of national unity, so as to be able to reduce the consequences of the civil war in Syria.”

How realistic that aim may be is open to question: Lebanon’s two main political alliances — March 14 and March 8 — emerged in 2005 as the expression of a radical split between groups supported by or opposed to Syria — which occupied parts of Lebanon from 1976 to 2005 and continues to be influential.

After the assassination of General Hassan, the March 14 coalition said that it would boycott any attempt at dialogue with pro-Syrian parties and called on President Michel Sleiman to dismiss the Lebanese government.

Officially, the government has maintained a policy of staying at arm’s length from the conflict in Syria, but opponents accuse it of working in the interest of Mr. Assad’s regime. One of those opponents is Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, the largest Christian party in the March 14 coalition.

Still, Mr. Geagea said in an interview he was not seeking a confrontation with the March 8 administration: “Our target is not to confront the government as such, the government is simply a detail in this confrontation,” he said. “The real confrontation is with Syria’s and Iran’s influence in Lebanon, especially through March 8 parties and their personalities.”

Like Mr. Jumblatt, Mr. Geagea was a warlord during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. Vehemently anti-Syrian, he was the only leader to do jail time for crimes committed during the war. His 1994 arrest came during Syria’s military occupation of much of Lebanon, when Beirut’s government was dominated by Damascus.

When he was released in 2005, after the March 14 protest movement forced Syrian troops from the country, Mr. Geagea continued to be openly hostile to the Syrian government.

In April, he survived an assassination attempt, for which he blamed Syria or its Lebanese allies.

“Every man in Lebanon can feel himself threatened if his opinion doesn’t go along with the Syrian regime’s or Hezbollah’s or March 8’s,” he said.

While speaking strongly of bringing down the government, Mr. Geagea and other March 14 leaders have been vague about methods.

Mr. Geagea said the government could be forced out through political pressure and democratic means alone, and he distanced himself from the armed Sunni supporters of the March 14 alliance who have taken to the streets this year.

Other Christian supporters of March 14 also express unease about militancy: “I think the reaction is normal, but it is not acceptable,” said Michael Farrah, a Christian businessman who supports March 14, of the violent response by some Sunnis to General Hassan’s death.

Mr. Farrah’s apartment, which looks over the site of the assassination, was damaged by the bomb blast, which shattered his windows and blew his front door off its hinges.

Like Mr. Geagea, Mr. Farrah said he favored democratic means to counter Hezbollah and Syrian influence. But asked if this was possible in a country where political groups maintain militias, he paused briefly before offering a resigned “no.”

One reason for the reluctance of Mr. Geagea and his supporters to pursue more active policies may be that Lebanon’s Christian community itself is split, with factions on both sides of the Syrian divide. A large part of the community supports the Free Patriotic Movement, a member of the March 8 governing bloc. Although headed by Michel Aoun, a former general who fought Syrian troops in Lebanon in 1989, the movement signed a deal with Hezbollah in 2006. Mr. Aoun has since been vocal in support of Mr. Assad.