Four years ago, Mohamed Khalaf was an aid worker among Sunni Muslims in Tripoli’s poorest neighborhood. Now he’s leading a group of fighters against gunmen loyal to the Syrian government.
An armed man stood guard outside Khalaf’s house in the north Lebanese city’s Bab El-Tabbaneh district on a September afternoon as he received visitors including a local member of parliament. A Lebanese army vehicle was parked nearby, a presence that residents say has done little to stop attacks, forcing them to take up arms.
Firebrands like Khalaf are gradually gaining support among Lebanon’s Sunnis who say their faith, the mainstream of Islam, is under attack by Alawite and Shiite supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah, the main pro-Assad group in Lebanon, controls the country’s most powerful armed force. The spread of violence is eroding state authority and pushing Lebanon, whose economy relies on tourism and finance, deeper into the sectarian conflict that engulfed its larger neighbor.
“We don’t wish it, but Hezbollah is dragging us” toward war, Khalaf said in an interview in his living room, adding that he sees himself rising up to the defense of the Sunni faith in a wider conflict.
The war in Syria has sharpened religious divisions across the Middle East, drawing in Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively the chief backers of Sunni and Shiite forces.
Lebanon’s history is scarred with sectarian violence, including a 1975-1990 civil war in which Syria was a key player and U.S. and Israeli forces became involved. Sunnis, Shiites and Maronite Christians are the largest among about 18 religious groupings, and the country’s political system guarantees representation and key government jobs for each.
Economic growth has slowed amid the turmoil, to an average of 1.5 percent in the last two years from 7 percent in 2010, according to the International Monetary Fund. Tourism, more than one-fifth of the economy in 2010, shrank 12.5 percent in the first six months of this year after Gulf monarchies warned their citizens against visiting. The slowdown and the influx of Syrian refugees may double the unemployment rate to above 20 percent in 2014, the World Bank said last month.
While cash-rich local banks have helped keep Lebanon’s sovereign bonds stable, the risk of escalation is prompting some foreign investors to steer clear of the securities.
“Should Syria fall into complete chaos, this would immediately have a contagion effect on Lebanon, with sectarian battles occurring on a heavier” scale, said Sergey Dergachev, who helps oversee about $9 billion at Union Investment in Frankfurt. He said he used to hold Lebanese bonds and wouldn’t buy them now.
Even with the military balance of power favoring Hezbollah and its allies, clashes are increasing in cities such as Tripoli in the north and Sidon in the south, as well as areas in the Bekaa Valley near the border with Syria. In June, gunmen loyal to radical Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir fought with Lebanese army troops for two days near Sidon.
In Tripoli, explosions targeting Friday worshippers at two mosques left 50 dead and 350 injured on Aug. 23.
A poster at one of the mosques, in the Bab El-Tabbaneh district, illustrates how the Syrian conflict has penetrated Lebanese society. It depicts three bloodied men, and announces that they died fighting for the “dignity and glory of the nation” in the Syrian town of al-Qusair.
That was the site of a major battle earlier this year, and the men in the poster were fighting alongside the Syrian rebels. There were Lebanese on the other side at al-Qusair, too, as Hezbollah sent members to support Assad’s forces, who eventually took the town.
Khalaf, known as Abu Mounir, says he’s confident that when the conflict in Lebanon escalates, “there will be money, and there will be weapons” just as the Syrian rebels have been getting help from Sunni-ruled Gulf states. “We won’t be left alone,” he said.
For now, the inability of radical Sunnis to match Hezbollah’s organization and military might is preventing localized conflicts from evolving into an all-out war, said Sahar Atrache, senior Lebanon analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, which tracks conflict worldwide.
While “there are efforts among Sunni Islamists to build up their military capacities,” they’re currently only able to confront smaller pro-Syrian groups, she said.
Financial support for the Sunni gunmen in Bab El-Tabbaneh is limited to donations of between about $2,000 and $10,000 each from wealthy individuals to buy bullets and light weapons, said Ahmed Nashar, 39, who also leads a group of fighters.
“Some bought mortars, but in small quantities,” he said. That pales in comparison with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah’s arsenal, which enabled the group to hold its ground against Israel in a monthlong war in July 2006.
Hezbollah says it won’t be dragged into a sectarian war even as it comes under attack, including a car bomb that killed more than a dozen in its stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs in August.
Some of Hezbollah’s supporters are confident that the balance of power will deter Sunnis from seeking an escalation. “In such a war, you have to win or get your head chopped off,” one supporter, who gave his name as Abbas Haider, said. “They know they’ll get their heads chopped off.”
The gap, though, is closing as “Sunni groups in Lebanon are becoming better and better armed,” increasing the risk of civil war, according to Anna Boyd, a London-based Middle East analyst at research firm IHS Inc. She said Sunnis in Syria and Lebanon may get more military support from Gulf states seeking to offset a possible rapprochement between the U.S. and their enemy, Iran.
The militias have gained prominence in the absence of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who leads the main non-armed political group that represents Lebanese Sunnis, the Future Movement. Hariri’s father, also a one-time premier, was assassinated in 2005, and he’s been living outside Lebanon for months for security reasons.
“When the leader is absent, his institution is weakened a bit,” Nuhad Salma, a lawyer and a Future official in northern Lebanon, said in an interview over coffee in Tripoli. “But we can’t blame him for being away.”
Salma, 34, ties the increase in radicalism among Sunnis to poverty born out of a lack of investment. Nashar and Khalaf, who have turned to armed struggle, say they’re driven by fears rooted in history, recalling massacres of people from their community during the 1980s civil war, when they were teenagers.
“Just to walk down the street, you had to weave your way around the dead bodies,” said Nashar. “That’s why we have to defend ourselves now.”