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Untangling The Roots Of Recent Flare-Ups In Lebanon


Since Syria's civil war began three years ago, its neighbor Lebanon has mostly managed to stay out of the fighting. But this last weekend, that fighting spilled over the border in a way that suggests Lebanon might be drawn into that intractable war next door. Anne Barnard is the bureau chief in Beirut for The New York Times. And we reached her to get an explanation of what is going on there. Good morning.

ANNE BARNARD: Good morning. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Now, you were just up in the area where some of those clashes took place in the North, Bekaa Valley. Tell us what you found there.

BARNARD: Well, along the mountainous border with Syria, there are many villages where tensions have been growing higher over the last three years. They're really eager to stay out of the Syrian conflict and particularly to avoid the sectarian dimension that has crept into the conflict. But there's a town called Arsal, which is in the mountains above the Bekaa Valley, where many Sunni Syrian refugees, as well as insurgents mixing among them, are a presence. And the people in the valley - mostly Shiites, but with some Christians and Sunnis mixed in - are increasingly afraid that extremists among those insurgents are targeting them because they consider other sects infidels. So there's been new fighting along the border since August, when there was an open battle between the Lebanese army and insurgents in Arsal. And those attacks have come closer to villages which had long been peaceful. People there are dusting off their rifles, thinking about whether they're going to have to defend themselves.

MONTAGNE: Now, you mentioned fighting a couple of months ago in August. Sunni militant groups, they crossed into Lebanon from Syria. That was a big moment. They captured dozens of Lebanese army soldiers. They beheaded several of them. Who are these militant groups, and why did they do that at that time?

BARNARD: There's a constellation of militant groups. On the ascendance is Jabhat al-Nusra, the Nusra front, which is the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria. And lately, some of those fighters have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State, which is the even more extremist group that has taken over parts of Iraq and Syria. So the conflict in Arsal was set off by the arrest of one of those fighters. And after that, their fighters swept into the center of the town of Arsal. They captured Lebanese soldiers. And they've continued to carry out probing attacks along the border, many people think because winter is coming and they need to establish some supply routes into Lebanon.

MONTAGNE: What does all of this mean for Lebanon, which, of course, had a very long civil war, is held together despite very big sectarian divisions within it? So what's your sense of how stable Lebanon is now that this civil war has, in some sense, spilled over the border?

BARNARD: Lebanon is a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, as you say, it has a history of instability and division. On the other hand, in part because institutions are weak, there's a certain elasticity to the place. And people really are not eager to relive the civil war experience. And Lebanon has managed to absorb 1 million and more Syrian refugees into a country of 4 million. When you look at the intensity of the conflict next door and the volatility of Lebanon, it's actually remarkable that things are not worse here. So that's maybe the bright side.

MONTAGNE: Anne, thank you very much.

BARNARD: Thank you so much.

MONTAGNE: Anne Barnard is the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times, speaking to us from the Beirut. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.