Pre-dawn clashes in the Lebanese capital of Beirut early on Monday have fueled fears that the 14-month-old Syrian conflict is finally spilling over to its western neighbor that lies on a sectarian and religious fault line. Sunnis blamed Syria in the killing of a Sunni cleric and accused Damascus of creating instability in Lebanon.
The clashes broke out hours after Sheikh Ahmad Abdel-Wahed, a prominent Sunni religious figure and an outspoken Assad critic, and his bodyguard were killed by the Lebanese army at a military checkpoint in the northern Lebanese district of Akkar on Sunday. At least two people were killed and 15 wounded in an exchange of rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Tariq Jadidah in Beirut.
The killing of al Wahed in Akkar and the clashes in Beirut have added a new twist in the drawn-out public row among different political groups.
Khaled Daher, a member of parliament from the Future Movement party, which is part of the March 14 alliance, said the two men were assassinated.
“If shots were fired at the tires, we’d say there was a mistake. But we consider this direct targeting by the army,” he told Reuters. “Frankly, we do not want to see the army here because it works for the Syrian regime.”
Rashid Fayed, a politburo member of Future Movement, said the clashes are part of a plan that was presented by the Syrian delegation to the United Nations, in remarks to Today’s Zaman on Monday. He claimed that the Syrian regime aims to divert international attention away from what is happening inside Syria to clashes in Lebanon.
“Syria claims that there is Islamic terrorism in North Lebanon. Al-Qaeda operates there. In a memorandum Syria presented to the UN, they addressed the so-called terrorism issue in Lebanon.” Fayed noted, claiming that the killing of Abdel Wahed is not an isolated occasion but inspired by the Syrian regime. Moreover, he argued that some groups in the Lebanese army act in concordance with the wishes of the Syrian regime.
Thousands of people gathered at the funeral of Abdul Wahed in his hometown of Bireh, Akkar on Monday. People carrying guns shouted “Down with Bashar.”
“The clashes erupted after the murder of a Sunni clergy by army soldiers. This prompted anti-army feeling among Sunnis in the northern part of the country. That’s why the army withdrew soldiers from the checkpoints to barracks,” said Timur Göksel, a former spokesman and senior advisor to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) who teaches at the American University of Beirut, in a phone interview with Today’s Zaman on Monday.
“After overnight clashes, Beirut seems quiet. I will go to university and give my lecture,” he said, adding that the clashes in Beirut did not stem from sectarian motives but occurred between two Sunni groups.
Turkey has no place in the picture
An official from an international non-governmental organization who asked not to be named said Turkey did not take any active role in the current situation in comparison to its previous active diplomacy when it attempted to act as a broker among several parties to form a government during a political crisis in 2009. In speaking to Today’s Zaman on Monday, he said it might be better for Turkey to stay away from the complicated situation in Lebanon for the moment.
Turkey began to face the realities of the Middle East in the broadest sense during the Arab Spring, he pointed out, especially the limits of Turkey as a soft power when things go awry and when crises break out. “It’s true that people are watching Turkish soap operas, downloading soundtracks of TV series and visiting Turkey in their holidays. But when you take a glimpse of the Turkish trade volume in Lebanon and the Turkish investment here, there is no comparison to other countries, such as Iran.”
When asked about the accusations of Sunni groups against Syria, he said that during its long occupation Syria built a web of relationships with some prominent local families across the country. “Not only Shiite families but also some Sunni families forged ties with the Syrian regime in the past. When Sunni groups and parties in North Lebanon or in Beirut accused Syria for what happened recently, they are indeed blaming those families affiliated with Damascus. They can’t name them, but they implicate those families by putting blame on Syria,” he said.
Regarding the positions of different political groups amid the ongoing clashes, he said Hezbollah chose to remain silent and distanced itself from the clashes as much as possible. According to the official, the Shiite movement avoided any statement that could further provoke the already-tense situation in the country.
Furthermore, Sunni groups also avoided clashing with Hezbollah as they are aware of the sensitivity of such action with regard to the unchallengeable military superiority of the Shiite movement.