Cloud of Syria's war hangs over Lebanese cleric's death

The fatal shooting of Sheikh Abdul-Wahid by a soldier raised fears about the influence of the Assad regime over the border, reports Robert Fisk

There was gunfire at Sheikh Ahmed Abdul-Wahid's funeral in northern Lebanon yesterday, a promise from the Lebanese army that they will investigate his killing – by a soldier – on Sunday, and a heap of appeals for calm from both the military and the government.

But, and here's the worrying factor, not a single Lebanese flag was held aloft at the Sunni Muslim Sheikh's graveside. Banners of the largely Sunni March 14th movement that opposes Syria, there were aplenty. And many flags of the old Syrian nation – green-white-and-black – the symbol that now identifies all opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. But Lebanon had somehow got lost.

Only hours after gun battles in Beirut – between Sunni Muslims who support Bashar and those who would like to see him dead – the angry, rifle-shooting cortege followed Abdul-Wahid's coffin, his sheikh's red and black turban attached to the lid upon a green and gold cloth, to the cemetery in his little village of Bireh. No one – not even the Lebanese army, which was hitherto the one reliable, non-sectarian institution in the state – can explain why a soldier would want to shoot the sheikh as he travelled with his bodyguard on the road to Halba in the far north of Lebanon. Military sources said that a soldier had also been wounded in the shooting. So did the sheikh's bodyguard fire first?

And what – an awful question, but one which was obviously being asked in Beirut yesterday – was the religious affiliation of the soldiers who apparently stopped, or tried to stop, the sheikh's car at a roadblock north of Tripoli? Yes, a committee would be set up to investigate. And yes, there would be a police inquiry. And a military inquiry, to boot.

But no one could stop the inevitable questions. Was Syria's war at last sliding over the border into Lebanon? Did Bashar, fighting against the odds in Damascus, want to relight the ashes that have smouldered away beneath Lebanon since the Syrians left the country in 2005? Was this – capital letters here for every Lebanese newspaper headline – A RETURN TO THE CIVIL WAR?

Probably not. If eight civilians were killed in Tripoli last week in battles between Sunnis and pro-Syrian members of the Shia Alawi sect, many more have died in gun battles over the past 12 months in the neglected, poor streets of one of Lebanon's most beautiful cities.

Four years ago, at least 80 were killed in battles between the pro-Syrian Hezbollah and Sunni gunmen loyal to March 14th. Two years earlier, 1,300 Lebanese were killed in Israeli attacks following the capture of three Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. There were Israeli invasions in 1996 and 1993. And if the 15-year civil war did end in 1990, there had been an earlier civil war between government and Druze militias in 1958. Lebanon is always enduring the greatest crisis since the last greatest crisis.

But the shooting in Beirut should not be diminished. Gunmen back on the streets of the capital produces a mixture of intense fear and weariness among the Lebanese. The fighting centred around the Berjawi family – Sheikh Shaker Berjawi, who was once pro-Palestinian and then pro-Mourabitoun, a particularly venal militia, and is now pro-Syrian, versus other members of his anti-Syrian extended family who support the Prime Minister Saad Hariri. But it spread from Tarek el-Jdeideh into the shopping district of Verdun and then moved towards the museum, the old civil war crossing point in Beirut.

The problem is that Syria now dominates Lebanon as surely as it did in the days when tens of thousands of its troops occupied much of the country. You only have to count how many times the phrases "pro-Syrian" and "anti-Syrian" appear in reports about Lebanon to grasp that the division between the government – electorally pro-Syrian and very much supported by Hezbollah and pro-Syrian Christian parties and the Shia Muslims – and the anti-Syrian Sunnis and Druze and Phalangist Christians is presently incurable.

But every time the Lebanese have been offered another civil war, they have turned it down. The young men and women educated outside Lebanon during the 1975-90 war do not want another conflict and are contemptuous of the sectarian politics, introduced by the French almost 100 years ago. And no one can forget who won the civil war: the one neighbouring power whose soldiers were stabled across the land, that rock-solid, secure dictatorship which would never suffer internal dissent, a nation called Syria.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect