On my visits to the areas even closer to the Syrian border, further north and east of Tripoli, the local population's enthusiasm for the revolution was unmistakable. This was particularly true in the region of Wadi Khaled, from where one can see the Syrian city of Homs and which has provided shelter for many of the refugees fleeing the military crackdown on that city and nearby villages. In the absence of the state, traditional networks supply the help needed. Syrian refugees stay in mosques and private homes; members of the Free Syrian Army regroup and find respite; and injured civilians and rebels receive medical care and sustenance.
Assad's Lebanese allies have tried, unconvincingly, to paint all this activity as the work of Islamist radicals. Asked about the accusations by the pro-Assad Lebanese defense minister that al Qaeda was running the smuggling to Syria, a village chief laughingly responded, "We are doing all what this villain says, except that we are not al Qaeda or extremists."
He has a point: Residents of Wadi Khaled belong to tribes living on both sides of the border, and they support the Syrian rebels out of kinship rather than religious ideology. Smugglers in the area once transported cheap Syrian goods and gasoline into Lebanon -- when the uprising erupted, they simply reversed the flow. Now they carry everything from weaponry to medical equipment and drugs across the minefields that the Syrian regime has laid along the border, bringing goods and supplies to the hot zones around the western Syrian cities of Homs and Qusayr. It should come as no surprise that the Lebanese Navy recently seized a ship bound for Tripoli from Libya that was carrying arms presumably destined for Syria.
The more radical Sunnis reside further to the south, in the rugged mountains of Dinniyeh and in the slums of Tripoli (though, of course, many moderate Sunnis live alongside them as well). There, the Salafi influence is visible to anyone who drives through. In December 1999, Islamist militants fought fiercely against the Lebanese military, backed by Syrian forces. Dozens were killed and hundreds arrested. In 2007, a shadowy jihadi group, Fatah al-Islam, took over the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared and battled the Lebanese Army for four months. Hundreds were killed in vicious fighting, and the camp was almost entirely destroyed. According to Lebanese intelligence, Fatah al-Islam members are now fighting alongside the rebellion in Syria, where a few were reportedly killed in April. The irony is not lost on many Lebanese who suspect, with good reason, Syrian intelligence of having contributed to its rise.
Ever since Syria's uprising began, Hezbollah and its allies in the Lebanese government have wanted to see a more forceful state crackdown on anti-Assad activities. This, however, would fatally destabilize a government over which they wield decisive influence -- alienating their shrinking number of Sunni allies at the risk of further inflaming sectarian passions. For his part, Prime Minister Mikati has tried to tread a thin line between assuaging his Sunni constituency and his pro-Assad allies in government, touting a shaky policy of neutrality and "dissociation" from developments in Syria. This has not prevented Lebanon's security agencies from monitoring, harassing, and even aiding in the rendition of Syrian dissidents, to the anger of the country's large anti-Assad constituency.
The possibility that the violence in Tripoli will spread across Lebanon remains limited, but the situation is undeniably deteriorating. Mikati's strategy depends on the ability and willingness of each faction to control the more destructive tendencies of its followers. As the case of Tripoli demonstrates, however, this is easier said than done: Sunni groups, feeling triumphant or angry, may think (mistakenly) the time is opportune to strike a blow against their rivals at home, as well as Assad abroad. Hezbollah, militarily strong but politically on the defensive, may decide that preemptive action is warranted. Any of the two scenarios would throw Lebanon into a sectarian hell.