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Sectarianism in the battle of Sidon

January 23, 2014 at 7:35 am

The escalation of fighting in Lebanon this weekend has for many entrenched their worst fears; that the conflict in Syria will spread across the border and engulf their neighbour. For the past year shockwaves from Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s bloody crackdown on activists have crept across the border, reaching its peak this Sunday with the outbreak of violence in the southern city of Sidon.

Depending on who you speak to, the story goes that those loyal to the prominent Sunni Sheikh Ahmad Al-Assir opened fire on an army checkpoint in Sidon. Others say that supporters of the cleric were provoked; either way, over 17 soldiers were killed, many wounded and over 20 of Al-Assir’s supporters killed with others arrested.


Al-Assir began his ascent into popularity last year when he called for Hezbollah to disarm. In July he blocked a main road in Sidon, and used a sit-in to put pressure on the group to surrender their weapons. His outspoken denunciations of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah have garnered support amongst those who oppose the rise of Shiites, and Hezbollah into power.

When Hezbollah recently came out as openly supporting Assad and his regime, and then fought alongside him in the battle in the border town of Qusair, Al-Assir rallied for Sunnis to unite and strike back. His call for volunteers to fight against Bashar Al-Assad reached out to Palestinian factions in refugee camps in Lebanon, and for Sunni soldiers to defect from the army.

Though Hezbollah are not reported as being heavily involved in the fighting in Sidon, a handful of its supporters are said to have fleetingly opened fire on Al-Assir’s men. Al-Assir often alludes to the army as being on the side of Hezbollah, and pitted against him whilst a number of leaders from the Gulf Co-operation Council have also accused the Lebanese government of being controlled by Hezbollah.

Whilst the army are allegedly determined to stay neutral, they have also been accused of bias and therefore inertia when it comes to Hezbollah and their actions. Yet the very fact that they intervened has generated concern about how much worse the fighting will get; it is the first time they have been drawn into heavy combat since the start of the Syrian revolution.

This is also the worst spell of Syrian violence since the start of Syria’s revolution in 2011 against Assad, and some say since the Lebanese civil war which started in 1975. The conflict in Syria has helped entrench sectarian divisions not only at home, but also in Lebanon, with leaders encouraging the population to take sides and compete against each other, rather than find a peaceful solution to the fighting.

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