Syria’s fractious and often-violent involvement in Lebanon is coming perilously close to war. Last Saturday a car bomb exploded near a security services office in Damascus, killing 17. Hardline Sunni militants from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli are lead suspects. Syria’s official news agency said the SUV used in the attack had been traced to a group in an unidentified neighbouring Arab nation that urges Sunnis to kill those believed to be infidels. Some think it’s no coincidence that the attack was directed at Syria’s government, which is controlled by the minority Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam that extremist Sunnis consider heretical.
The bombing, combined with Monday’s car bombing in Tripoli that killed at least five, is evidence of the latest ratcheting-up of tensions. Since June more than 20 people have died in battles in northern Lebanon between the region’s majority Sunnis and Alawite gunmen. Last month, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite, warned his Lebanese counterpart to deal with the “problem of extremism” among the Sunnis. Adding to the friction, many of Lebanon’s Sunnis support Saad Hariri, son of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, whose 2005 assassination was widely blamed on Syria, which occupied much of the country. Soon after, Syria bowed to international pressure and withdrew.
But its soldiers might soon be back. Syria has massed up to 10,000 troops on the border in the last few weeks. Officially, they are there to stop smuggling, but some analysts believe it is an unsubtle warning that the Sunnis shouldn’t mess with the Alawites. Everyone is now waiting for Assad’s next move. His ruling family takes threats seriously. In the 1980s, his father brutally suppressed an uprising among Syria’s majority Sunnis. Thousands died.