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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. 

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Hezbollah has been accused by the Syrian opposition and Western officials of dispatching fighters into Syria to assist regime forces crush the rebellion and to train Syrian troops and pro-regime Shabiha militiamen. Syria represents the geopolitical lynchpin connecting Hezbollah to its patron, Iran, collectively forming an “axis of resistance” to challenge Israel and Western ambitions in the Middle East.

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The collapse of the Assad regime will blunt Iran’s ability to exert influence in the Middle East and risks weakening Hezbollah in the long-term, especially if a moderate Sunni regime emerges in Damascus.

Rebels making gains

After months of grinding stalemate between the Syrian Army and rebel forces, the latter has been gaining some ground in recent weeks, capturing military bases, securing much of the eastern edge of the country, and pushing deeper into Damascus from the eastern suburbs.

It is too early to predict with confidence the imminent demise of the Assad regime which continues to enjoy logistical support from Iran and the diplomatic backing of Russia, but the regime’s setbacks have created a heightened sense of anticipation that the tide may be turning in the favor of the Syrian opposition. That expectation is fueling increasing Sunni assertiveness against Hezbollah’s pervasive influence in Lebanon.

Sheikh Assir, the Sunni cleric, held his rally on Sunday to commemorate the deaths of two of his supporters last month in a clash in Sidon with members of Hezbollah. Hundreds of Sunnis from Sidon and other cities and towns across Lebanon gathered outside the Bilal bin Rabih mosque where Assir preaches on the outskirts of the city. Many of them were dressed in black and sported thick beards and shaved lips in the Salafist style. Black banners inscribed with “There is no God but God” and flags of the rebel Free Syrian Army fluttered in the breeze as the crowd began marching down the hill toward the city center. “Terrorist, terrorist, the Party of Satan is terrorist,” the crowd chanted playing on Hezbollah’s name which is Party of God in Arabic.

“We are against the Iranian project in Lebanon,” says one middle-aged man in broken English. “Hezbollah has put his hand on all the Shiites and let Iran run Lebanon.”

But don’t rallies such as this with its strong anti-Shiite sentiment only worsen sectarian relations in Lebanon?

“Yes, the situation is going to get much worse between Sunnis and Shiites,” the man says. Another marcher overhears the conversation and breaks in.

“No we are not against the Shiites. We want to live in peace with the Shiites. We Sunnis are against Hizbushaitan [the Party of Satan] only,” he says.

Anti-Hezbollah rhetoric was also aired in Tripoli in north Lebanon on Sunday at an event commemorating the 40th day since the assassination of Wissam al-Hassan, a top intelligence chief who was close to Hariri’s Future Movement. In the wake of the car bomb assassination, the anti-Hezbollah March 14 parliamentary coalition called for the resignation of the government, which is dominated by Hezbollah and its allies.

Sunni opponents of Hezbollah have accused the Shiite party of Hassan’s death along with many of the other dozen assassinations, successful and failed, since 2004.

“We are facing a dangerous stage, a stage in which they [Hezbollah] will try to impose Iranian tutelage over Lebanon,” Ahmad Fatfat, a Sunni member of Parliament with the Future Movement, told the rally in Tripoli. “But we say that they must realize that Hassan’s martyrdom has opened the battle for Lebanon’s martyrdom. Therefore, we fear only God. We will face them with a civilian resistance. As we have won over Assad in Lebanon, we will win over Iranian tutelage.”

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