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Associated Press
Lebanese Army soldiers monitor clashes that erupted Monday.

Syria strife begins to destabilize Lebanon

– Potentially the most unstable country in the Middle East, Lebanon for the most part has stayed on the sidelines of the Arab Spring, keeping up appearances as an oasis of relative modernity, commerce and good times.

But the spillover effects of the Syrian war are ripping off that thin veneer.

Beneath the surface lurk the same forces that devastated the country during its years of civil war, with simmering hatreds still dividing Muslims and Christians, Sunni and Shiites, and secular and fundamentalist groups. Outside forces are still arrayed, militias are still armed and the country seems forever on the verge of tearing itself apart.

“Of all Syria’s neighbors, Lebanon is the weakest, the most political and ideologically polarized and split among sectarian lines,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, head of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. “The fear is not if the Syrian conflict will spill over – but whether it has already reached the streets of Beirut.”

The assassination of Lebanon’s intelligence chief in a car bomb Friday is threatening to upend a fragile political balance in Lebanon, a country plagued by decades of strife – much of it linked to political and military domination by Damascus.

The funeral for Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan descended into chaos over the weekend as soldiers fired tear gas at protesters who tried to storm the government palace. The demonstrators were furious at a leadership they consider beholden to Syria, blaming al-Hassan’s death on the regime in Damascus.

Al-Hassan, 47, was a powerful opponent of Syria’s influence in Lebanon.

In the hours following the funeral, gunmen fought street battles in Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli. Sectarian clashes killed at least five people, and on Monday cracks of gunfire rang out in Beirut as soldiers and armored personnel carriers with heavy machine guns took up position on major thoroughfares and dismantled roadblocks.

The outburst of violence appeared to be a sign of a nation hurtling toward civil war.

But this is Lebanon, where traditions of social freedoms, factional loyalties and fanaticism are held in a political balance that gives no group full power to force its agenda. When that balance is disrupted, such as by Friday’s assassination, the result is another cycle of violence.

It’s too early to know if the al-Hassan killing will plunge the country back into war.

But his death does not appear to be having the kind of galvanizing effect seen in 2005, when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a truck bombing along Beirut’s waterfront. Hariri’s assassination sparked thundering street protests that forced Damascus to withdraw its tens of thousands of troops from the country.

Al-Hassan’s killing, seven years later, comes at a time of deep divisions both inside Lebanon and beyond. Sectarian tensions already were enflamed over the Syrian civil war, the bloodiest and most protracted crisis of the Arab Spring.

Many of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims have backed Syria’s mainly Sunni rebels, while Shiite Muslims and the militant group Hezbollah have tended to back Syrian President Bashar Assad.