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'Boiling point': On Lebanon's Syria Street, a civil war brews

Syria's chaos has come over the border into Lebanon, with gunmen clashing in deadly street battles. NBC's John Ray reports.

TRIPOLI, Lebanon – It only takes a two-minute stroll down Syria Street to see why so many people are so worried about what might happen next in Lebanon.

A hole punched through the wall of the mosque by a rocket or mortar shell, smoke-blackened masonry, shops and apartments bearing the pockmarks of fierce gun battles.

Syria Street is the aptly named thoroughfare that separates rival factions in Lebanon’s second city.

For much of the past week, the two sides have been waging a mini-civil war.

It is a direct spill over from the chaos in neighboring Syria.

Photos: Violence on the streets of Tripoli

One side of the street is home to a hard-line Sunni Muslim militia who run guns to rebels across the border.

“President Assad is trying to destroy us,” says Sheik Bilal Masri, by way of explanation. “They cause trouble here to take the pressure of them in Damascus.”

Since the Syrian crisis broke out, the price of weapons has exploded in neighboring Lebanon. ITN's John Ray meets the rebels buying the weapons and the dealers selling them.

We meet a small group of his men. They are well-armed and apparently spoiling for a fight.

Not many yards away, posters of Syria’s President Bashar Assad striking stern military poses adorn walls on the other side of the street.

Here the people share Assad’s Alawite faith and, it seems, the same determination to defend his regime.

Omar Ibrahim / Reuters

A man hides behind sandbags amid clashes in the Bab al-Tebbaneh neighborhood in Tripoli, Lebanon, on Thursday.

“No one wants a civil war in Lebanon,” a local Alawite leader tells me.  “But everyone should be warned: There will be repercussion for anyone who tries to meddle in Syria.”

Conflict along Syria Street is nothing new. But the outside world began to take notice on Monday when for the first time in four years, gun battles broke out on the streets of Lebanon’s capital, Beirut.

2 killed, 18 hurt as Syria conflict spills over into Lebanon

It was a brief glimpse back into the abyss for a nation scarred by years of civil strife.

In 2005, Syrian troops were forced to withdrawal from Lebanon, but Damascus is still a big player in the fractured politics of a country that sees rival Muslim and Christian sects share power in a set of uneasy alliances.

Syria’s most powerful friend here is Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group that probably holds the key to whether Lebanon survives in one piece.

Inside Syria rebel stronghold: 'The city is on mute' 

Its heartland in the south of Beirut has been tense, but so far its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has kept his forces out of the fray.

But for how long?

The fatal shooting of two Sunni clerics followed by the kidnapping of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in Syria shows how unpredictable events have become.

A message to Assad? War games held near border

For more than two decades, Timur Goksel has watched events in Lebanon. Once of the U.N. Mission here, he now lectures at the American University in Beirut.

He tells me the country has rarely felt so dangerous.

“I hope I am wrong because this is scary. If the faction leaders lose control of these young guys with the guns then we’re in trouble,” he said.

Their bloody history has taught the Lebanese to be a fatalistic people.

“The country is at boiling point,” another seasoned observer told me with a shrug.  “What is coming will be very bad.”

NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports from war-torn Homs showing how parts of the city have been ravaged by fighting while others spared.


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