The violence in northern Lebanon is not happenstance. Both Damascus and Hizbollah benefit by aggravating fears of a sectarian conflict.
Syria lets loose a bogeyman on Tripoli's troubled streets
The fighting in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli in recent days has been intimately related to the conflict in next-door Syria. Indeed, all the indications are that it was a Syrian trap, and that the enemies of the regime of President Bashar Al Assad fell right into it.
Last weekend, agents of the Lebanese General Security directorate arrested one Shadi Mawlawi, an Islamist active in assisting Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Mr Mawlawi was lured to a social aid centre belonging to the finance minister, Mohammed Safadi, where he was apprehended. This triggered a wave of condemnation in Tripoli, followed by armed clashes between pro and anti-Syrian quarters - principally the Sunni Bab Al Tebbaneh and the mainly Alawite Jabal Mohsen.
The background to the incident explains the sudden violence. Tripoli, a largely Sunni city, is a bastion of opposition to Syria and Hizbollah. It has always been watched closely by the minority Alawite Assad regime, fearful of cross-border solidarity between Lebanon's and Syria's Sunnis. This was especially true after the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, once Tripoli was free of Syrian intimidation.
During the tense years after the pullout, Lebanon was politically split between the so-called March 14 coalition and a pro-Syrian Hizbollah-led alliance. Hizbollah, thanks to its weapons, was able to retain the upper hand in Beirut, but March 14 ruled in Tripoli. As a result, Hizbollah began backing pro-Syrian factions in the city, financially and through arms supplies. This has reportedly escalated during the Syrian uprising, with both Hizbollah and Syria keen to ensure that Tripoli remains divided and does not host anti-Assad activities.
However, the Syrians and Hizbollah have also seen another advantage in manipulating politics in northern Lebanon. The narrative put out by the Syrian leadership this past year has been that it is fighting jihadists. Although uncertain, the charge that Al Qaeda-affiliated groups are participating in the Syrian uprising has gained traction in the West. For instance, it was echoed by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta last week, who then threw in a caveat that "we don't have very good intelligence as to just exactly what their activities are".
The intention of the Syrians, through Mr Mawlawi's arrest, was to lend further credence to this version of events. The Salafist phenomenon in Tripoli is exaggerated, with only a minority bearing arms, and many of the city's various Islamist groups are at odds with each other. Notably, during an earlier round of fighting in 2008 between Jabal Mohsen and Bab Al Tebbaneh, the leading Lebanese Salafist figure, Dai Al Islam Shahhal, mobilised at best 30 combatants on the front line. As one activist put it to me at the time: "The confrontations ended up showing how weak the Salafists were."
And yet when Mr Mawlawi was taken into custody, the initiative shifted to those disjointed bearded bands in the streets protesting against what had happened. Some picked up weapons against the better armed Alawites. Suddenly, the Assad regime's contention that Tripoli was a jihadist base on Syria's eastern flank seemed true. And in condemning the behaviour of the General Security directorate, many March 14 representatives (albeit not only them) somehow came across as being affiliated with Sunni Islamists.
Yet everyone was right to be suspicious. General Security, headed by General Abbas Ibrahim, normally operates at the airport and border crossings; it does not organise sting operations. Gen Ibrahim is a Shiite who is said to coordinate with Hizbollah and Syria. He recently provoked anger in Tripoli by appointing a fellow Shiite as commander of the General Security branch there. Rightly or wrongly, critics saw this as another example of Hizbollah's inroads into Sunni areas.
Some Lebanese politicians believe that Mr Mawlawi's arrest was prepared at Syria's behest. The intention was to elicit a vehement sectarian response, thus supposedly confirming that if Mr Al Assad were one day ousted from office by an alliance of Syrian and Lebanese Islamists, this would transform Syria into a radical Islamic state.
It is important to ponder what is happening in Tripoli in light of Lebanese parliamentary elections next year. The situation in Syria will not soon improve, which is why Hizbollah is quietly bracing itself for a post-Assad order. To gain protection, the party must secure a tighter grip on Lebanese national institutions, above all parliament. The vote in predominantly Christian areas will be decisive in shaping the electoral outcome. That is why Hizbollah's skill in heightening Christian doubts when it comes to the Sunnis, by portraying the entire community as being under the thumb of the Islamists, will be essential in swinging voters behind Hizbollah's Christian partners.
For now, the skirmishing in Tripoli may be brought under some nominal control, even if animosities are bound to persist. Hizbollah does not want the situation to get completely out of hand. This could lead to widening sectarian clashes and bring down the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, himself a Sunni from Tripoli. Any ensuing political vacuum could undermine the party's ability to retain the levers of state, something fundamental to Hizbollah as it prepares the ground for elections that it wants to be certain of winning.
Outsiders watching what has happened in the past days in northern Lebanon interpreted it as a sign that the Syrian conflict was starting to spread. Mr Al Assad must have been pleased. Anything that appears to point to the onset of chaos conveniently frightens the international community. This buys him time to pursue repression. The Syrian game of blackmail, honed for decades, never ends.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut
On Twitter: @BeirutCalling