BEIRUT (Reuters) - A double suicide bombing at a cafe in the Lebanese city of Tripoli was meant to ignite a new round of civil strife in a country whose stability has been repeatedly strained by the war in neighboring Syria.
Instead, the fragile Lebanese state appears to have emerged a little stronger from the Sunni militant attack that killed nine people in an Alawite neighborhood, helped by new political talks that are containing sectarian tensions.
The state’s response to the bombing - an operation that reestablished control over a prison taken over by its Islamist inmates - points to common ground among Lebanese on opposite sides of the region’s wider, sectarian-fuelled conflict.
Lebanon, with its own combustible sectarian mix, has felt the force of that conflict in suicide bombings and bloody confrontations between the army and militant groups.
More trouble is expected: a car bomb rigged with 120 kg (265 lb) of explosives was found on Thursday near the Syrian border.
Sunni militant leaders remain at large, with plenty of opportunity to recruit among disaffected Lebanese Sunnis, in Palestinian refugee camps, and from a pool of well over a million Syrian refugees.
But Lebanese politicians see the outcome of the Tripoli attack as further proof their country will continue to muddle through, shielded by regional understandings that have spared them the kind of all out conflict raging in Syria and Iraq.
The two players best placed to contain sectarian tensions - the Future Movement of Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri and the Shi’ite group Hezbollah - launched political talks this month seen as part of a broader effort to keep a lid on Lebanon.
The talks, the first such Sunni-Shi’ite dialogue since the start of the Syria crisis, could not have proceeded without the blessing of regional backers in Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The two states whose rivalry has fueled sectarian bloodshed in the region appear to agree on the need to contain instability in Lebanon, whose 1975-90 civil war was driven by sectarianism.
The dialogue has been credited with keeping tensions in check after the Jan. 10 bombing in a predominantly Alawite neighborhood that is generally sympathetic to Hezbollah and the Syrian government.
“If we had been in a climate of tension certainly there would have been different reactions,” Samir al-Jisr, a Future Movement politician taking part in the dialogue, told Reuters.
Hezbollah urged restraint. The families of the two bombers condemned them and said they would not hold funeral rites.
Two days later, security forces stormed Roumieh prison in a long planned operation that could not have happened without a green light from rival politicians after the Tripoli bombing.
Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, a member of the Future Movement, said Islamist inmates were connected to the Tripoli attack. “Dialogue is a strategic decision that supports Lebanon’s integrity and opens the way to every political and security step that will help with stability,” he told Reuters.
Beyond the gates, the inmates were effectively running the jail. With access to the internet and mobile phones, they were in contact with militants outside.
Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker, said the operation “proved that the state exists”, adding that it was a result of Hezbollah-Future dialogue and had required a political decision.
Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah has credited Hariri for pushing for the dialogue. With Saudi backing, the former prime minister remains an influential voice among Sunnis though he has made just one visit to Lebanon since leaving in 2011 after Hezbollah and its allies toppled his government.
He hopes the talks might pave the way for agreement on a new president - a position reserved for a Christian that has been empty since Michel Suleiman’s term expired in May.
Lebanon’s two main Christian rivals - Samir Geagea and Michel Aoun - are expected to hold their own talks on the presidency. But it is widely assumed a deal to fill the post will need to be brokered by outside powers.
For now, the Sunni-Shi’ite dialogue is focused on managing tensions as the threat of more Sunni militancy remains high.
Hezbollah’s role in Syria, where it is fighting alongside government forces, has been cited by al Qaeda-linked militants as a motivation for attacks. Hezbollah’s critics say it has provoked such violence. The group says it is fighting in Syria to protect Lebanon from jihadists.
Leading Sunni militants are still at large, hiding in Palestinian refugee camps beyond the reach of the security forces. Militants linked to Islamic State and al Qaeda still represent a threat at the eastern border with Syria.
They are holding some two dozen members of the security forces taken captive during an attack on the border town of Arsal last August - the most serious spillover of the Syrian to date.
“Despite what happened in Roumieh prison, which has restored some of the state’s standing, the situation in the country remains fragile,” said Rajeh Khoury, a political commentator.
“The danger is still there because Lebanon stands in the middle of fires and wars that are burning around it.”
Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Dominic Evans