Rebel gains in Syria embolden Lebanese Sunnis
Sunnis in Lebanon are growing more outspoken about the most powerful faction in their country, the Shiite movement Hezbollah.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s increasingly tenuous hold on power is emboldening Sunnis in neighboring Lebanon to escalate their opposition to Hezbollah, the powerful militant Shiite movement and ally of Mr. Assad.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Reaching a critical juncture in Syria
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Lebanon has long been overshadowed by its larger neighbor to the east but with the Assad regime struggling for survival, many Lebanese Sunnis are sensing that the balance of power in the Levant is set to swing in their favor. If Assad and his minority Alawite sect are toppled from power, the majority Sunnis are likely to rule Syria and could cut support for Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah wants to govern the whole country, but I can assure you that it will not happen because we have an Islamic revolution in Syria right now, and this will bring Hezbollah down,” says Sheikh Zakaria al-Masri, a Sunni cleric, addressing a rally in the southern city of Sidon on Sunday attended by some 1,500 Sunni opponents of Hezbollah. Sheikh Masri was a guest speaker at the event, which was organized by Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, a firebrand Salafist cleric from Sidon and outspoken critic of Hezbollah.
Still, Hezbollah is the most powerful political and military force in the country, stronger even than the Lebanese Army, and it has demonstrated a will in the past to resort to the use of arms domestically when it feels threatened. In May 2008, Hezbollah and its allies briefly took over Sunni neighborhoods of Beirut when the then Western-backed government attempted to shut down the party’s private communications network. The move sparked a week of fighting that brought Lebanon to the brink of civil war.
Some analysts worry that the combination of a weak moderate Sunni leadership in Lebanon, the rise of new radical leaders such as Sheikh Assir, and a sense of Sunni triumphalism as the Assad regime teeters will inflame Sunni-Shiite tensions even further. The analysts worry this could lead to clashes or even suicide bomb attacks in Hezbollah-supporting strongholds, invoking a harsh response from the Shiite organization.
Sunni support for rebels
Most Sunnis in Lebanon support the Syrian opposition against Assad’s rule and some have even joined armed rebel groups to fight Syrian government forces. On Sunday, Syrian state television broadcast footage showing several bodies that it said were part of a group of 21 Lebanese Salafist fighters who fell into an ambush near the town of Tel Kalakh having slipped into Syria from Lebanon. The men were reportedly from Tripoli and other areas of north Lebanon.
Furthermore, Okab Saqr, a Lebanese member of Parliament who, despite being a Shiite, is a member of the mainly Sunni Future Movement headed by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, confirmed at the weekend that it was his voice heard on an audio recording released last week by a Lebanese television station in which he discusses an arms deal with a Free Syrian Army commander. For months rumors have circulated that Mr. Saqr was in Turkey helping provide arms and ammunition for the FSA, although he denied the accusation in a televised interview last month before the audio recordings were aired.
But Lebanese Sunnis are not alone in intervening in the Syrian civil war.