Syrian conflict risks stoking sectarian violence in Lebanon

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It only takes a two minute stroll down Syria Street to see why so many people are so worried about what might happen next in Lebanon.

A hole punched through the wall of the local mosque by a rocket or mortar shell, smoke-blackened masonry, shops and apartments bearing the pock marks of fierce gun battles.

Syria Street is the aptly-named thoroughfare that separates rival factions in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city.

For much of the past week, the two sides have been waging a mini civil war.

It is a direct spill over from the chaos in neighbouring Syria.

One side of the street is home to a hardline Sunni Muslim militia, which runs guns to rebels across the border.

"President Assad is trying to destroy us,"’ says Sheik Bilal Masri, by way of explanation.

"They cause trouble here to take the pressure off them in Damascus."

We meet a small group of his men. They are well armed and apparently spoiling for a fight.

Syria Street Credit: ITV News

The other side of the street is adorned with posters of President Assad striking stern military poses.

Here the people share the same Alawite faith and, it seems, the same determination to defend his regime.

"No-one wants a civil war in Lebanon," a local Alawite leader tells me. "But everyone should be warned. There will be repercussions for anyone who tries to meddle in Syria."

A poster of Syrian President Assad on a building in Syria Street Credit: ITV News

Conflict along Syria Street is nothing new. But the outside world began to take notice on Monday when, for the first time in four years, there were gun battles in the streets of the capital, Beirut.

It was a brief glimpse back into the abyss for a nation scarred by years of civil strife.

In 2005, Syrian troops were forced to withdraw from Lebanon, but Damascus is still a big player in the fractured politics of a country that sees rival Muslim and Christian sects share power in a set of uneasy alliances.

Syria’s post powerful friend here is Hezbollah, the militant Shia group that probably holds the key to whether Lebanon survives in one piece.

Its heartland in the South of Beirut has been tense, but so far its leader Hassan Nasrallah has kept his forces out of the fray.

A family in one of the many bullet-marked buildings lining Syria Street Credit: ITV News

But for how long?

The shooting dead of two Sunni clerics followed by the kidnapping of Lebanese Shia pilgrims in Syria show how unpredictable events have become.

For more than two decades Timur Goksel has watched events in Lebanon. Once of the UN Mission here, he now lectures at the American University in Beirut.

He tells me the country has rarely felt so dangerous."I hope I am wrong because this is scary. If the faction leaders lose control of these young guys with the guns then we’re in trouble."

Their bloody history has taught the Lebanese to be a fatalistic people.

"The country is at boiling point," another seasoned observer told me with a shrug. "What is coming will be very bad."