Syria’s increasingly sectarian civil war has yet to spill deeply into religiously diverse Lebanon, where more than 60 percent of the population is Muslim, split roughly between Sunnis and Shiites. But political analysts say opposing Lebanese groups’ growing involvement in the conflict next door is exacerbating dangerous tensions that have periodically erupted into sectarian clashes in the past year. In recent weeks, Syrian rebels have intentionally fired shells at Hermel, a Lebanese border town near al-Quseir that is a Hezbollah stronghold.
Echoing a view that is gaining ground among Lebanese, Assir and Mohammad Obeid, a Shiite analyst with close ties to Hezbollah, said that Lebanon’s official policy of neutrality toward the Syrian war is no longer worth taking seriously.
“Everyone has violated it. So it’s not only Hezbollah,” Obeid said. “Everyone is now acting on a sectarian basis toward the Syrian crisis.”
The increasingly overt public polarization in Lebanon over Syria’s war — and an expanding debate in the news media and mosques over Hezbollah’s participation in it — could expose Lebanon to a regional backlash if Syrian rebels and the Arab Gulf states backing them decide to target Hezbollah on its own turf, said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
Hezbollah’s movement in the Syrian border region of al-Quseir indicates “a new type of engagement, a new threshold” that, coupled with the Sunni reaction it has provoked, is “one more step in a bad trajectory,” Salem said.
Increased activity, fighting
Political analysts and Syrian opposition activists said Hezbollah has been involved in the Syrian conflict to some extent for more than a year, despite the group’s public claims that its members are merely protecting Shiites on the Lebanese side of the border. But recent reports from residents and rebels in the al-Quseir region suggest a new level of intensity.
Syrian opposition activists have posted online videos in recent days of alleged firefights with Hezbollah’s paramilitary groups and of Hezbollah identification papers allegedly found inside Syria. Hezbollah has also quietly held funerals for members purportedly slain in Syria’s fighting.