BEIRUT – The State Department ordered all nonessential U.S. personnel Friday to leave Lebanon, reflecting fears that an American-led strike on neighboring Syria would unleash more bloodshed in this already fragile nation.
The Lebanese government’s top security body held an emergency meeting and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah put its fighters on high alert.
Lebanon and Syria share a complicated history and a web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries. The uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad has intensified divisions among Lebanese religious groups as well as polarization among those who support him and those backing the rebels fighting to topple him.
Lebanon has become completely consumed by the civil war next door. Car bombings, rockets, kidnappings and sectarian clashes – all related to the conflict – have become increasingly common in recent months.
Hezbollah, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime, has sent its fighters to back Assad’s forces against the rebels, and the militant group’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has suggested he would do everything it takes to save the regime.
Adding to the jitters, the U.S. said it had instructed its nonessential staff to leave Beirut and urged private American citizens to get out of Lebanon.
The step had been under consideration since last week, when President Barack Obama said he was contemplating military action against the Syrian government for its alleged chemical weapons attack last month that killed hundreds near Damascus.
In a separate advisory for Turkey, the State Department announced it would allow personnel at the Adana consulate – the closest diplomatic post to Syria – to leave their posts. It recommended that U.S. citizens defer nonessential travel to southeastern Turkey.
The department also renewed its travel warnings for Iraq and Pakistan, advising Americans of continuing security concerns in those two countries. Both have been the subject of long-standing travel warnings.