January 28, 2008 | 0238 GMT
Deadly riots broke out on Sunday in Beirut's predominantly Shiite southern suburbs, leaving eight Lebanese Shiite protesters dead and at least 29 wounded. Lebanese Shiite opposition groups and Amal were demonstrating against the Western-backed government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, protesting electricity and fuel shortages and spiraling inflation in the country. Security forces said that when the army starting firing warning shots into the air near the Shiite and Christian neighborhoods of Mar Makhaeil, the protesters shot back at the troops, prompting retaliatory shots by the army that killed eight and Amal activists.
It was only a matter of time before communal clashes broke out in . The country is deeply divided between Shiite, Sunni, Maronite Christian, Druze and Palestinian factions that remember all too well the 1975-1990 civil war that engulfed the country.
In this latest incident, the fact that Lebanese troops were evidently ordered to shoot to kill indicates that Siniora's government is now willing to escalate matters and authorize the use of force to contain federalist model being pushed by Iraq's largest and most powerful Shiite faction). Such a separatist move would further exacerbate Lebanon's communal frictions and rip through the country's fragile political system, quite possibly triggering a new civil war.. The Lebanese army leadership has become acutely aware that , prodded by its patrons in and , is pushing for the creation of a Shiite ministate in the country (echoing in some respects the
That is exactly the image that , and are attempting to evoke for the United States, and , which are backing the Siniora government. is a battleground for regional power plays, and the recent uptick in bombings, communal clashes and tire-burning protests is part and parcel of a strategy formulated by , and to secure their interests in the region.
For , the main intent of this opposition campaign is long-term survival. wants to secure indemnity for its militant wing by forcibly increasing its share of power in the government, thereby ensuring that no moves can be made to disarm its fighters. 's staying power is directly linked into the Syrian and Iranian agendas for the region.
For its part, targeted assassinations that has hit has been part of this campaign. is looking to re-establish its position as Lebanon's kingmaker. Since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri — an event that led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon — Syria has steadily rebuilt its intelligence network in the country. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Syrian intelligence apparatus in appears to be even more informed about the Lebanese domestic scene than it was prior to the 2005 troop departure. On one level, wants full immunity from prosecution for the al-Hariri assassination, but in the bigger picture needs to ensure that it more or less calls the shots in its western neighbor. The wave of
The Iranians also are heavily invested in Lebanon's internal mayhem. political paralysis. is pitted against the United States in a tense standoff over the future of Iraq and the Iranian nuclear program. If Tehran can demonstrate, through , that it has the means to reach far and wide in the region to instigate massive waves of instability, it can increase its leverage in negotiations with . also can pose a greater threat to , which is warily watching events unfold to its north while its own government is trapped in
The question now is: when do the interests of these players collide? It's possible that threat of massive disorder probably serves Tehran's interests far more effectively than the reality would. is working toward a return of its forces to by creating the conditions for a civil war. After all, it was under such tumultuous circumstances that had the opening to send forces into the country in 1976 — emerging from the war with de facto control over . But is unlikely to want to go down that path. The Shiite militant organization has evolved into a powerful political and military force with a sizable Shiite constituency. With practically every faction in heavily armed, there is no guarantee that would benefit from a civil war. Though is willing to push the envelope in for its own interests, the Iranians might not be especially keen on seeing the country implode. In this case, the
, Syria and Iran will have to take these concerns into account, now that the army is responding with force to 's actions. Sunday's incident seems to confirm that is no longer interested in having Lebanon's army chief, Michel Suleiman, become president — plunging deeper into political gridlock. has plans in store to up the ante in the country, for instance by taking Westerners hostage; however it also knows that such actions come with consequences, including undesired intervention from outside powers. If , and are not on the same page in planning their next steps for , the risk increases that the country will fall back into its dark civil war past.