Ali Hashisho/REUTERS
Sunni Muslim Salafist leader Ahmad al-Assir addresses his supporters during a protest against Hezbollah arms in Sidon, southern Lebanon, December 2, 2012.

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.

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.

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.

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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