THE BLOG
10/08/2011 19:08 BST | Updated 10/10/2011 06:12 BST

How Syria's Strife is Fuelling Sectarianism in Lebanon

With the Iranians and Hezbollah backing the Syrian regime while the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia put pressure on Assad to go Syria is becoming the scene of world struggle.

"Everybody is preparing for a war. We reach a point where we need guns to protect ourselves. Everyone is getting armed."

So says Adel, a mid-20s Lebanese man, speaking in the centre of Beirut where a few hundred people have gathered to condemn the regime of President Assad, the largest in the country since the uprising began. The protest begins warmly, with candles being lit, posters saying "No to silence in Lebanon" and old friends kissing three times on the cheek.

Yet within minutes the atmosphere sours when a small but vocal counter-protest arrives. This group of predominantly Shiite men yell their support for Assad, much to the dislike of those on the other side of the barriers. When one man makes an attempt to break in the nervy police, decked in riot gear, jump to attention to prevent a clash.

They have right to be nervous, the previous few weeks have seen increasing levels of violence in the city. Last week protesters at an anti-Assad march in the west of the city were attacked, with a handful hospitalised. Adel says that three months ago a Glock Gun sold for as little as $1500; now it will set you back $3000. The Lebanese are arming themselves again.

The spectre of sectarian violence is causing much concern in Lebanon, less than 25 years since the country's brutal 15-year civil war ended. Many of the causes can be traced to the implosion of Syria. The two countries are intrinsically economically linked, Syria is the only open border that Lebanon has and tightening restrictions in recent months have hit trade. But more widely tensions in Syria are beginning to trickle over the border, bringing to the fore old grievances in Lebanon.

Much of the focus resolves around the power of Hezbollah, the Shiite militia-come-political party which forms a crucial part of the government. While the Syrian leadership is officially non-partisan many of the country's ruling elite, including the Assad family, belong to the minority Alawite sect - a breakaway from Shia Islam. The Lebanese government this week made the controversial decision to be the only country on the UN Security Council not to back a resolution condemning the violence in Syria. Meanwhile Hezbollah continue to actively back Assad despite criticising Hosni Mubarak of Egypt during the Tahrir Square protests, fuelling claims in the Sunni and Christian communities they are not playing fair.

While there is little active desire for a return to civil war in much of the populace, as ever with Lebanon her future may well be determined by outside forces. If Assad is removed from power and a majority Sunni government is formed in Syria Hezbollah will no longer have an automatic route for its weapons, pushing it into a corner it may try and fight its way out of.

They are already under pressure after the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon identified four men with links to Hezbollah as suspects in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Hezbollah have denounced the tribunal, with their leader Hassan Nasrallah labelling it an Israeli-American conspiracy. Yet there is a sense that they are, for the first time in a number of years, on the back foot in Lebanese politics and it is not a position Nasrullah will accept lightly.

Yet the alternative to the collapse of Assad is hardly more desirable. If Syria becomes a long drawn-out civil war in the mould of Libya the protests in Lebanon may continue to grow. Ahmed Tariq, another marcher and a member of Hariri's Mustaqbal movement, says he will continue to voice his anger until Assad goes, even if that means further conflict with the Shiites. "They [the Syrians] killed Hariri. Now the people want to make a revolution in Syria and I hope to add to it. He will fall in the end." Old Lebanese grievances becoming mixed with current Syrian protests.

The third alternative, that Assad successfully suppresses the protests, would probably have the least effect on Lebanon but it is also looking the least likely. Events in Lebanon, the little sister of the Levant, have long been determined by the forces around them. With the Iranians and Hezbollah backing the Syrian regime while the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia put pressure on Assad to go Syria is becoming the scene of world struggle. Lebanon's fractious political balance means the fallout will almost certainly not end on Syria's border.