(BEIRUT) — With its civil war becoming more sectarian in nature, the violence in Syria appears to be spilling over into Lebanon, which was once engaged in its own 15-year internal conflict.
At least 16 soldiers were killed in two days of fighting between the Lebanese army and supporters of Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir in the city of Sidon, with each side accusing the other of initiating the confrontation.
Specifically, al-Assir has called for the country’s Shiite militia group Hezbollah to disarm, essentially acting as a mouthpiece for Sunni Muslims, who are distrustful of Hezbollah while at the same time supporting the national army, which worries that the cleric is trying to foment another civil war.
Further fueling the growing tension is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad enlisting the services of Hezbollah fighters in his battle to retain power against rebel dissidents, who are mostly Sunni.
Al-Assad’s close association with Hezbollah has enraged the cleric, who is trying to establish himself as the leader of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims.
The standoff in Sidon, with the military calling for the surrender of al-Assir’s militia, threatens to spiral out of control and could spread to other parts of the country, threatening the already weak Lebanese government.
Meanwhile, Syrians who sought refuge in Lebanon’s third largest city from the fighting in their own country are now looking elsewhere for safety.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Ralph Ellis, Ben Wedeman and Michael Pearson, CNN
Sheena McKenzie, CNN