Most observers see the heightened tensions in Beirut and other parts of Lebanon during the past week largely as a result of the spillover of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon. Others whisper that it is the other way around -- that Lebanon's chronic sectarian tensions have now spilled over into Syria, where the signs of a Sunni-Alawite war are on the rise. Somewhere in between these two views is the truth, and it is not pretty -- multiple kidnappings of Lebanese and foreigners, well armed family militias, burning tires blocking access to Beirut airport, attacks against Syrian shops in Lebanon, threats of killing hostages, Gulf states evacuating their nationals from Lebanon, and a general fear that Lebanon could slide back into the ugly years of the civil war.
The drama is frightening and sad, but it is mostly serious drama, I suspect, rather than a slide back into the civil war's legacy of mass kidnappings and killings. Regardless of who influences whom in Lebanon and Syria, this week highlights the deep vulnerabilities and chronic instability that are evident in both countries, but also in many other Arab countries that continue to grapple awkwardly with the twin challenges of statehood and sovereignty.The main feature of the past week's tensions has been the tit-for-tat kidnappings in Syria and Lebanon. First the Free Syrian Army opposition in Syria kidnapped 11 Lebanese Shiites and another Shiite man from the Lebanese Meqdad family was captured and accused of being a Hizbullah operative helping the Syrian government put down the uprising against the Assad regime. Then the Meqdad family "military wing" -- heavily armed hooded men in black in full battle regalia -- announced on live television that it had mobilized its forces and kidnapped 20 Syrians and a Turkish businessman, targeting those it saw as helping the Syrian rebels trying to topple the Syrian government.Lebanese Sunnis near the Syrian border retaliated by kidnapping Shiites and Assad backers. Some angry Lebanese related to the 11 Shiite captives in Syria then blocked the airport road and the Masnaa main land crossing to Syria. These common tactics not only paralyze life in Lebanon, but send a thunderbolt of fear up every spine in Lebanon, because they generate instant and massive images of a civilian population trapped in the city and country, unable to leave while fighting rages all around and innocent civilians are kidnapped or killed only on the basis of their religion or nationality. That was the civil war experience, and its memory remains fresh in every Lebanese mind.The Lebanese government shifted into gear when the cycle of kidnappings escalated. It then quickly opened the airport and Masnaa roads, convened a "national dialogue" meeting of most but not all sectarian and political leaders, designated a sub-committee to resolve the hostages crisis, and promised to keep the airport road open until eternity. The Meqdad family military wing announced it would not seize citizens from Arab Gulf countries, and the next day said it would refrain from any more kidnappings, because it held enough hostages to trade for those Lebanese held in Syria.The immediate crisis eased slightly, but all hostages remain in captivity, and none of the underlying drivers of the crisis were addressed or resolved. A full exchange of hostages likely will take place in due course, and we will revert to square one -- which in most Arab lands is a landscape where the central government is unable to provide all citizens with the full basic needs and security they expect from it. The vacuum is filled by family and tribal groups, religious organizations, civil society forces, the private sector, criminal gangs and thugs, or foreign patrons. We will see this drama repeated in the months and years ahead.However, two new elements today compared to Lebanon's civil war days make me feel that a return to total communal war will be avoided. The emergence of Hizbullah as the strongest military force in the country means that nobody will start a civil war because Hizbullah could quickly defeat any combination of foes, and also the Hizbullah-backed central government and security forces are acting more decisively than previously to stamp out small flare-ups of violence around the country. The Lebanese have had numerous opportunities in the past decade to revert to civil war ways, and always pulled back from the brink, because they are not stupid or reckless enough to repeat that senseless episode. But they are prepared to go to the brink regularly, as they are doing this week.Syria for its part is suffering the delayed consequences of over four decades of a dysfunctional governance system based on coercion, violence and corruption, which now sees hundreds of local communities or clan-based villages relying on their tribal or sectarian assets and identities to compensate for -- or actively oppose -- the failed central government. Spillover is not the most important issue today, but rather the vagaries, weaknesses and intermittent failures of central government systems that have never fully mastered the mechanics of stable and sovereign statehood that serves all citizens equally.Rami G. Khouri