A Snapshot Of The Middle Eastern Sectarian Powder Keg

Yesterday's massive car bomb in Lebanon, which killed and wounded dozens including the country's police intelligence chief and has thus been dubbed as the most "high-profile assassination in seven years", confirmed once again that when it comes to regional powder kegs, the middle east is second to none, and is the 21st century equivalent of Eastern Europe. While nobody has claimed responsibility yet for yesterday's brazen attack (although the "agenda-less" media is once again insinuating it is the doing of Syria's leader Bashar al-Assad) one thing is certain: provocations of this nature will continue indefinitely until they escalate into something much more lethal. The reason: the melting pot melange of different sects in Syria and Lebanon, which co-exist in perfectly mutual hatred despite, or rather because of, the artificial political borders imposed between the two countries provides a terrific backdrop to which merely add a spark and watch everything go up in flames. Which also means that those seeking to provoke further military escalation in the region, now that attempts to stoke a conflict between Syria and Turkey have so far failed, will likely look to Lebanon as a new conduit for escalation.

Because remember: as David Rosenberg pointed out yesterday, in a time of record partiasniship, political bickering and lack of consensus, "it may end up taking some sort of a crisis, in the end, to galvanize the two parties to work towards a resolution to the fiscal morass."

And that is precisely what the endgame here is: the intention to unify a hopelessly split congress (and senate) behind the patriotic banner of war. It is only a matter of time (but certainly in time to address the Fiscal Cliff).

As to the "powder keg" nature of the latest hotspot, here is Stratfor with a summary of the "Ethnic Divisions in the Levant."

As the conflict in Syria devolves into clan-based warfare, Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah is working on contingency plans to ensure its long-term survival. Hezbollah's goal is to maintain a strong military, political and economic presence in Lebanon, especially since proxy battles are almost certain to intensify in the Levant as emboldened Sunnis gain confidence to challenge Hezbollah's autonomous position in the region. One of the group's contingency plans assumes that Syria fails to hold together after the fall of Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime and the country splinters into autonomous entities.

In Syria, the Alawites will retreat to the mountainous coastal region for protection. The al Assad regime has already been preparing for this contingency by reinforcing military positions around the enclave stretching from Latakia to the port of Tartus. A coastal Alawite enclave would be difficult to defend and sustain economically in isolation. However, if both Syria and Lebanon are consumed by civil war, Shia and Alawites (who are an offshoot Shiite sect) would likely band together to defend themselves against their sectarian rivals. Hezbollah appears to have a contingency plan to carve out and defend a 20-kilometer (12-mile) border corridor with the Syrian Alawite enclave on the coast.

This is a difficult endeavor, because Hezbollah does not exercise authority in Sunni-dominated northern Lebanon. Instead, Hezbollah would control strategic access to the Orontes River Basin in Syria and Lebanon to form a contiguous Alawite-Shiite mini-state. Hezbollah currently claims control of 18 villages along the widest part of the basin. Most reported Hezbollah activity in Syria has occurred in this area, particularly around the border town of Al Qusayr. Controlling the bulge of the river basin would theoretically allow Hezbollah to pool resources with an Alawite enclave in the northern Bekaa while the organization attempts to hold its ground in the southern Beirut suburbs and southern Lebanon.