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Strife in Syria Ripples Into Lebanon's Sectarian Divide

  • Scott Bobb

Lebanese citizens leave a destroyed building that was damaged during clashes erupted between pro- and anti-Syrian Sunni groups, in Beirut, Lebanon, May 21, 2012.

Lebanese citizens leave a destroyed building that was damaged during clashes erupted between pro- and anti-Syrian Sunni groups, in Beirut, Lebanon, May 21, 2012.

TRIPOLI, Lebanon - Some 700 people in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli staged a rally Friday to demand the release of Sunni Islamist leaders who they said were detained for opposing Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. The demonstration comes amid fears that the conflict in Syria could further enflame sectarian tensions in Lebanon.

Hundreds of Sunni Islamists known as Salafists Friday demonstrated in the northern Lebanese city, Tripoli. They were demanding the release of some 200 Sunni Lebanese who they say are being held without charge because they support rebels fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The conflict in Syria has raised tensions in this port city near the Syrian border. Sunnis, who tend to support the Syrian opposition, are angry at members of the local Alawite group that sympathizes with the Alawite-dominate Assad government.

The Lebanese government publicly has sought to stay out of the confrontation, calling it an internal Syrian affair.

But Syrian officials have accused certain Lebanese groups of supplying arms and other forms of support to the Syrian rebels.

Twenty-three-year-old electrician Hussein Ali said he attended the rally after Friday prayers to show solidarity with his fellow Sunnis.

He says there have always been problems between the Shi’ite Alawites and the Sunnis. But he says it is not between them alone because Syria is trying to make trouble. It was calm for a while but now they are trying to stir it up.

Ten people were killed in the city during clashes between the two groups two weeks ago. The violence erupted after a Salafist cleric was killed by Lebanese security forces at a checkpoint.

Sunnis say the cleric was targeted because he was helping Assad opponents flee to Lebanon. The Lebanese government says it is investigating.

A speaker at Friday's rally, Sheikh Omar Bakri, accused the Lebanese government of collaborating with the Syrian government. He urged the government to free the detainees on bail and charge them if it finds any evidence of wrongdoing.

“We [can] resolve the problem [by] releasing them all on bail or face the consequences. We are willing to make Islamic spring in the north of Lebanon.”

The Alawite community in Tripoli lies on the other side of a battle line marked by bullet-pocked buildings and burnt-out apartments. Posters of Mr. Assad and his father, the late Hafez al-Assad, are plastered on walls lining the narrow streets.

Clothing merchant Ali Fouda says the situation in Syria is fueling tensions in northern Lebanon.

He says we Alawites do not believe we should interfere with Syria's political affairs and they, the Sunnis, want to interfere. He says in Syria, the revolutionaries are calling for democracy but democracy is a contradiction to their [the Salafists's] ideology and beliefs.

The Syrian conflict is also causing unease among Shi’ite Lebanese.

Their militant Hezbollah party has sought to reduce its historical ties to the Syrian government because of the Assad government's crackdown on the opposition. But this has strained relations with Iran, which is a major supporter of the Syrian government as well as Hezbollah.

Clashes reached Beirut last weekend, leaving two dead. The tensions were aggravated by the kidnapping of a dozen Shi’ite pilgrims returning through Syria from Iran. Damascus blamed Syrian rebels but the rebels denied the charge. The pilgrims were released Friday.

Lebanese leaders from all sectors of society called for restraint and non-violence. But analysts say the atmosphere is volatile and small, isolated incidents could set off clashes.

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