Syrian spillover: Beirut sees worst clashes in four years
The killing of a Sunni cleric at a Lebanese Army checkpoint yesterday ignited widespread protests among aggrieved Sunnis. (+video)
An overnight gun battle between rival factions in Beirut marks the worst bout of political violence in four years as the Syrian uprising increasingly spills over into neighboring Lebanon, exacerbating sectarian tensions.Skip to next paragraph
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The fighting, which left three dead, capped a day of escalating friction. The fatal shooting of a Sunni cleric by Lebanese soldiers yesterday tapped into a deep sense of frustration and anger felt by many Sunnis here toward the Syrian regime's brutal crackdown on the mainly Sunni opposition. Though Lebanon's government is headed by a Sunni, it is backed by Damascus and some believe it is cooperating with the Syrian crackdown.
“The reasons the Sunnis are so angry is because we used to have the power but we have had it taken away from us. Yes, we have a Sunni as prime minister but he is not with us and he takes orders like a dog,” said an elderly man seated on a sidewalk stool in Tarik al-Jdeide, a Sunni neighborhood of Beirut.
A few blocks away, policemen, soldiers, and a crowd of onlookers gathered around the bullet-scarred and fire-blackened entrance of a seven-story building, where rival Sunni factions had clashed. A small group headed by Shaker Berjawi, allied with the Shiite Hezbollah organization, was besieged by supporters of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Future Movement, the leading Sunni political organization in Lebanon. Three were killed and 10 wounded before the Army moved in and rescued Mr. Berjawi and his followers.
“There were many men with weapons and they came into our building and broke into our apartments so they could fire at Berjawi’s men. It was very frightening,” said a young female schoolteacher who lived opposite Berjawi's offices. Those interviewed in the area declined to give their names, underlining the sense of nervousness that has gripped the area.
Rising instability along Syria-Lebanon border
Even before yesterday's clashes, north Lebanon has seen a breakdown of stability as a result of the upheaval in Syria seeping across the border. For the past week, there have been intermittent gun battles that left 10 dead and dozens wounded in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, between Sunnis living in the Bab Tebbaneh quarter and a small community of Alawites in the adjacent Jabal Mohsen district. The Alawite sect is an obscure offshoot of the Shiite faith whose adherents form the backbone of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Furthermore, in recent weeks, Lebanon’s northern border with Syria has witnessed a spate of shootings, kidnappings of Lebanese and Syrians and brief military incursions allegedly by Syrian troops. On the night of May 19, one Syrian was killed and two others wounded as they tried to cross the border from Lebanon to return to their homes in Syria.
Most Sunnis in north Lebanon back the predominantly Sunni opposition in Syria, while Hezbollah and most of Lebanon’s Shiite community side with the Assad regime. Some Sunnis are actively assisting the Syrian opposition. One Future Movement activist claimed that as many as 300 Sunnis from the Bekaa Valley in east Lebanon are directly helping the opposition by providing logistical support or even serving as armed combatants.
The Lebanese government follows a policy of noninterference in the Syria crisis, but many Sunnis believe that the Lebanese security forces are cooperating with the Assad regime to crackdown on anyone providing support for the Syrian opposition.
“The army has taken the side of the Alawites. The officers are all Shiites,” says Sheikh Bilal al-Masri, a Sunni cleric from Tripoli who follows the austere Salafi branch of the faith and fought in last week’s clashes in Tripoli against Alawite gunmen.