BEIRUT – Eighteen rockets and mortar rounds from Syria slammed into Lebanon on Saturday, the largest cross-border salvo to hit a Hezbollah stronghold since Syrian rebels threatened to retaliate for the Lebanese militant group’s armed support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The rockets targeted the Baalbek region, the latest sign that Syria’s civil war is increasingly destabilizing Lebanon. On Friday, the Lebanese parliament decided to put off general elections, originally scheduled for June, by 17 months, blaming a deteriorating security situation in the country.
In Qatar, an influential Sunni Muslim cleric whose TV show is watched by millions across the region fanned the sectarian flames ignited by the Syria conflict and urged Sunnis everywhere to join the fight against Assad.
“I call on Muslims everywhere to help their brothers be victorious,” Yusuf al-Qaradawi said in his Friday sermon in the Qatari capital of Doha. “If I had the ability I would go and fight with them.
“Everyone who has the ability and has training to kill … is required to go,” said al-Qaradawi, who is in his 80s. “We cannot ask our brothers to be killed while we watch.”
He denounced Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, as “more infidel than Christians and Jews” and Shiite Muslim Hezbollah as “the party of the devil.”
He said there is no more common ground between Shiites and Sunnis, alleging that Shiite Iran – a longtime Syria ally that has supplied the regime with cash and weapons – is trying to “devour” Sunnis.
The Syrian conflict, now in its third year, has taken on dark sectarian overtones. It has escalated from a local uprising into a civil war and is now increasingly shifting into a proxy war.
Predominantly Sunni rebels backed by Sunni states Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are fighting against a regime that relies on support from Alawites, Shiites and Christians at home, and is aided by Iran and Hezbollah. The Syria conflict is also part of a wider battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional influence.
Sunni fighters from Iraq and Lebanon have crossed into Syria to help those fighting Assad, while Shiites from Iraq have joined the battle on the regime’s side.
Sectarian tensions rose sharply when Hezbollah stepped up its involvement in the war in mid-May by joining a regime offensive against the rebel-held Syrian town of Qusair, about six miles from Lebanon. The town has since become one of the war’s major military and political flashpoints, with international concern growing over civilians believed to be trapped there.