RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And the unrest in Syria has its neighbor Lebanon on edge. The fear is that the turmoil in Syria will spill over the border and ignite sectarian violence that simmers just below the surface in Lebanon. NPR's Peter Kenyon visited the Lebanese city of Tripoli and filed this report.
PETER KENYON: Of all the pro-Syrian actors in Lebanon, the Shiite militia and political party Hezbollah is the best known. But here in Tripoli, residents are more worried about a smaller group, the Alawites, members of the same minority that has ruled neighboring Syria for more than 40 years. Their numbers may be small, but they are well-armed and fiercely loyal to Damascus.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
KENYON: I'm standing on a market street in Tripoli. Directly ahead of me is Bab al-Tabbaneh. It's a poor Sunni neighborhood. And on the hillside above it is the Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen. Three years ago, this was the scene of intense armed clashes that left dozens dead and hundreds of families displaced. Nobody here wants to see that repeated.
So far that kind of sectarian violence has not returned. But as a coffee seller's clinking cups echo through a deserted market, the economic damage is already apparent. Residents say the only ones making money these days are the arms dealers.
In keeping with Lebanon's reputation as a haven for religious minorities provided they're willing to fight for their own survival the Alawites of Lebanon are at once a feared armed group and a threatened religious minority.
Rifaat Eid heads the Alawite Arab Democratic Party, and he's in full agreement with Syria's argument that chaos will erupt across the region if Bashar al-Assad's regime is threatened.
Mr. RIFAAT EID (Alawite Arab Democratic Party): Because if anything happens in Syria, all the Middle East will be divided. There's serious danger in this, that all the minorities will end in the Middle East, especially the Christians. Okay? And I will tell you, as minorities, the Jewish will - can't afford to stay in the Middle East.
KENYON: Eid proudly recounts how former Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad rescued the Alawites during Lebanon's civil war. He says Syria trained, armed and funded the Lebanese Alawites, whose most recent battles have been against hard-line Sunni Salafists that he says are backed by Saudi Arabia. That's one reason why he says the price of a Kalashnikov is so high these days.
Mr. EID: We are seeing it now in Egypt and who's gathering all the power, the Salafists. The gun, the Kalashn gun, its $300, $400. Now its $2,000, and no one can get one. Okay?
KENYON: Sunni leaders see the situation differently. Lawmaker Khaled Daher says the catastrophic warnings from Syria and its supporters are simply a tired replay from the Arab dictator's playbook: Back me or face chaos.
Mr. KHALED DAHER (Independent Islamic Assembly): (Through translator) The Syrians are very good at putting fear into people. I mean their problem is with their people. They want rights, democracy - this is what they should be working on, their problems with their people. Instead, what are they doing? From the beginning, you know, the Syrians have tried to move the focus from their problem to others.
KENYON: If Syria wants to destabilize Lebanon, analysts say it won't take much in a country that always seems to be on the brink of collapse.
(Soundbite of chanting protestors)
KENYON: While demonstrations have been staged in capitals around the world, opposing the Syrian regime's crackdown against its citizens, in Beirut recently, it was a pro-Assad demonstration that snarled traffic.
Beirut political analyst Oussama Safa says it took decades to build the tangled allegiances that make up Lebanon's modern ties to Syria. And even those who loathe those connections are fearful about what might happen if they're suddenly severed.
Dr. OUSSAMA SAFA (Lebanese Center For Policy Studies): The political system, the electoral law are all put together basically to keep a certain elite in power that is very close to the Syrians. So all of this would probably be all of a sudden be gone, if the regime in Syria is no longer able to call the shots. And I think this might throw Lebanon into a lot of uncertainty.
KENYON: Many Lebanese are convinced Bashar al-Assad isn't going anywhere soon. Retired Lebanese Army General and analyst Elias Hanna says since 1970 Assad's father, Hafez, cultivated a system of control in which Alawite loyalists occupy the key military, intelligence and political positions. But by the same token, says Hanna, if this popular protest can sustain itself, Assad's options will be limited.
General ELIAS HANNA (Lebanese Army, Retired): In Syria there is one dimension: the army, security, and the party, and the political level are one - zero-sum game. So that's why you have like a dilemma today in Syria. If the president opens up too much, he loses. And if he closes too much, he loses.
KENYON: As the world watches how President Assad responds to the biggest threat yet to his regime, no one is watching more closely than Lebanon.
Peter Kenyon, NPR NEWS.
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