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Syria-like violence seen as unlikely in a Lebanon that’s stable in its instability

Despite speculation that a recent assassination would drive this small country back to the communal violence of the civil war that wracked it for more than a decade, such a descent remains unlikely.

“It has been happening since 2005,” cafe owner Sahar Minkara said, referring to the bombing last week that killed Wissam al Hassan, a general in one of the country’s intelligence services.

Though no culprit has been identified, Hassan’s death bore similarities to other attacks since 2005 that killed critics of the Syrian government, which has exerted control over Lebanese politics, sometimes violently, for decades.

“It’s just their way of sending a message,” Minkara said.

Lebanon’s politics are inextricably linked to Syria’s. Syria and Lebanon were one country until Lebanon gained independence in 1943, and Syria occupied Lebanon militarily from 1976 until 2005, when the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri by a car bomb sparked massive demonstrations against the Syrian military presence and eventually forced its withdrawal.

Those historic ties have made it popular to speculate that Syria’s violence will spill over into Lebanon, where civil war raged from 1975 to 1990.

But the country’s political dynamics are very different now from what they were during that war. Then, Christian militias fought Muslim ones. Today, the major fault line is between Muslim sects, as the country’s once-powerful Sunnis chafe at the strength of the Shiite political party and the militia Hezbollah. Christians have become a distinct minority, riven by their own disagreements.

That most of the country’s recent violence has taken place in Tripoli, where Sunnis vastly outnumber other groups, is notable. Here pro- and anti-Syrian government gangs in the adjacent neighborhoods of Jebel Mohsen and Bab al Tabbaneh clash regularly. Jebel Mohsen is populated primarily by Alawites, members of a sect associated with Shiite Islam to which Syrian President Bashar Assad belongs. Bab al Tabbaneh, a Sunni neighborhood, bears a grudge that dates to the massacres the occupying Syrian army carried out there in the 1980s.

But there are few other such flash points where Sunnis and Shiites live close together, and so far no side has deployed a regular militia. The last time Sunni gunmen briefly took over parts of Beirut, Hezbollah, which remains the only side with a well-trained, well-armed force, quickly deployed its fighters, and the Sunnis withdrew. It’s unlikely that any escalation now would end differently from how it did then.

“This is what Lebanon is. It’s been like this since the establishment of the state,” said Timur Goksel, the former head of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. “In 1975 there were groups that were primed. Who’s going to fight in this civil war?”

Even in Tripoli, the signs of tension are sporadic. The cafe that Minkara owns is just a mile from the Jebel Mohsen and Bab al Tabbaneh neighborhoods. It was bustling Thursday, though radical Sunni gunmen had forced Minkara to close it last week to observe the funeral for Hassan, whose killing is widely thought to have been Syrian retribution for his role in prosecuting Michel Samaha, a former Lebanese official who’s accused of helping to plan bombings on behalf of Syria.

A short walk away, demonstrators were pitching tents in front of the apartment building that’s the home of Prime Minister Najib Mikati. They were demanding his resignation, saying he’s too accommodating to the Syrian regime and to Hezbollah, which is unquestionably the most powerful force in Lebanese politics.

“We want a government that is neutral and the disarmament of all groups,” said Ahmed Halawani, one of the leaders of the demonstration.

After Hariri was killed in 2005, hundreds of thousands poured into the streets in protest. They were met by Hezbollah counter-demonstrators, who also numbered in the hundreds of thousands. It was a massive political mobilization in a country of about 4 million.

This week, however, the tents for demonstrators were empty here, and there was little sign that Hassan’s death would fill them soon.

Even those who said they were prepared to flee should violence break out are skeptical that it will be necessary.

Lena Kabbara, a customer at Minkara’s coffee shop, said that the last time she’d left the country because of violence was in 2006, during the 33-day war between Hezbollah and the Israeli military. As for the current flare-ups, Kabbara, who has family in Ukraine, sounded unconcerned.

“It’s normal. We are used to it,” she said.

Another sign that the prospect of violence has yet to shake the country could be found in Beirut, where construction continues apace on luxury apartment buildings not far from the seaside. The industry has been hurt by Hassan’s killing, which caused Syrians to flee for fear of retribution. Lebanon’s construction sector depends on Syrian labor.

But the prospect of Lebanese killing Lebanese wasn’t the concern.

“Do you know anyone who wants a job?” a foreman asked.