Clashes between al-Assad supporters, opponents leave 16 dead in Lebanon

Story highlights

  • Lebanon constantly struggles to maintain a balance among its sects
  • Tripoli is home to both Sunnis and Alawites
  • Analysts: the longer Syria's war rages, the more destabilized Lebanon will become

An uneasy calm prevailed Thursday morning in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli where days of clashes between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad left 16 people dead and wounded more than 156.

Fear of snipers kept people indoors, reported Lebanon's state news agency said. The streets were empty of cars, and schools and universities closed.

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The fighting began Sunday, with the deadliest clashes taking place Wednesday night, Lebanon's state news agency said.

The clashing sides are residents of the Bab-al-Tibbaneh neighborhood (dominated by Sunnis), and the adjacent Jabal Mohsen neighborhood (which is dominated by Alawites).

Tripoli is home to both Alawite and Sunni Muslims, and sectarian tensions have worsened in recent months as the civil war in neighboring Syria rages on.

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    The Alawites support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Sunnis want his ouster.

    The Lebanese government has remained officially neutral in the conflict -- even as it has firmly, but quietly, supported al-Assad.

    Analysts say the longer the Syrian conflict rages, the more destabilized Lebanon will become.

    The Syrian connection

    The major concern for Lebanon is that Syria's troubles will reopen the wounds of Lebanon's 15-year-long civil war, which ended in 1990.

    Aside from its southern border with Israel, Lebanon is entirely surrounded by Syria, and was considered part of "greater Syria" until the end of World War I.

    It became an independent country in 1943 but has been strongly influenced by Syria both politically and militarily for much of the time since.

    Syrian troops were deployed in Lebanon between 1976 and 2005, primarily in the north -- ostensibly at first as peacekeepers to help stop Lebanon's long civil war -- but maintained a significant presence long after the fighting stopped in 1990.

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    This all changed in 2005 after former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed by a car bomb in Beirut.

    Anti-al-Assad elements in Lebanon accused the Syrian government of being behind the attack, and popular protests -- along with international pressure -- forced the Syrian military to withdraw from the country.

    Since then, Lebanon's two most prominent political blocs have been sharply divided in their attitude toward Syria: the ruling pro-Syria alliance and a group of anti-Syrian factions led by Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated former prime minister.

    In addition, thousands of refugees have poured into Lebanon since the conflict in Syria began.