THE BLOG
22/05/2012 09:50 BST | Updated 22/07/2012 06:12 BST

Lebanon is Not Just a Sectarian Conflict

So it finally happens, nearly a year after the doomsayers said it was inevitable, that the violence in Syria slips over the border into Lebanon. While there have been occasional skirmishes in the north for months, the developments in the past fortnight suggest an increase in the dangers for the Lebanese.

So it finally happens, nearly a year after the doomsayers said it was inevitable, that the violence in Syria slips over the border into Lebanon. While there have been occasional skirmishes in the north for months, the developments in the past fortnight suggest an increase in the dangers for the Lebanese.

Last week, following the arrest of an alleged Islamist, clashes between groups of men in the second city of Tripoli left at least eight people dead, with dozens more injured. Then over the weekend the killing of a sheikh by security forces in Akkar set off a series of protests against the Syrian regime, leading to the first clashes in the capital Beirut on Sunday night.

The Lebanese are now waiting and watching nervously to see what will happen next but as we await answers to these questions it is worth asking what has already happened. Much media focus has been on the sectarian nature of the clashes, with Sunni Muslims who by and large oppose Syrian President Bashar Assad clashing with Assad's own sect the Alawis. With Alawis being an offshoot of Shia Islam and the predominantly Shia Lebanese party Hezbollah still backing the Syrian regime, it is easy to portray the conflict in binary terms as Sunnis versus Shias.

While there is undoubtedly a sectarian element to the conflict this kind of thinking is both reductive and dangerous. Sunday night's clashes in Beirut provide a clear example of the nuances of Lebanese politics. Men from the Sunni opposition Future Movement fought with those from the pro-Assad Arab Movement. However the latter group is in fact made up predominantly of Sunnis, not Alawis. In fact, as Patrick Galey has written, the Future Movement fighters knew they were predominantly fighting Sunnis at the time.

More widely the assumption that Shia Hezbollah will back the Alawis is far from certain. Their role has so far been a back-seat one, with their normally vocal leader Hassan Nasrallah conspicuous by his absence in recent days. Hezbollah has previously promised that its weapons are only to be used to fight Israel, never to be turned on the Lebanese, and bar one event in 2008 they have largely kept to that deal. Nasrallah is due to speak later this week, his first major address since the violence escalated, and it will be interesting to see where he positions the party.

Furthermore within the ranks of the Sunnis there is far from uniformity. A chasm has been growing between the Future Movement, with the party's leader Saad Hariri not having visited the country for a year due to 'security threats,' and the so-called 'Sunni street.' Many of these feel let down by their political representatives and marginalised by the pro-Hezbollah government. The rise of Salafis in Tripoli is a new phenomenon in Lebanon, and one that is pushing the Future Movement into taking a much stronger position than they have previously done.

These are nuances that much of the international media have failed to express. Too often they are using the terms pro-Assad and Shia/Alawi almost interchangeably, while doing the same with anti-Assad and Sunni. By simplifying the conflict into easy to understand but essentially inaccurate statements, journalists are in danger of misleading their audiences. The "Arab tribes fighting each other" may be an easy way of explaining the crisis but it only portrays part of the story.

Even more worryingly, the Sunni versus Shia line leaves us in danger of aiding those who want to divide Lebanon. Whether it be Assad - who likes to use the threat of Sunnis to frighten the Alawi minority in both Syria and Lebanon into blind support - or Hariri - who says Lebanon has a choice between Sunni radicalism or his return to power - by playing sectarian politics we are reinforcing the divides.

Undoubtedly sectarian tensions play a role in Lebanon but assuming Sunnis and Shias are uniform blocks will only make it harder for the Lebanese to negotiate a peaceful way out of this mess.