BEIRUT – Syrian rebels and Hezbollah guerrillas battled Sunday in their worst clashes yet inside Lebanon, a new sign that the civil war in Syria is increasingly destabilizing its fragile neighbor.
Syria’s foreign minister, meanwhile, rebuffed an appeal by the U.N. and the Red Cross to let humanitarian aid reach thousands of civilians trapped in the rebel-held town of Qusair, under regime attack for the past three weeks. The Red Cross said many of the wounded were not receiving desperately needed medical care.
The latest confrontation between Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and Syrian rebels, who have been fighting on opposite sides inside Syria, came at a time of increasingly incendiary rhetoric between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the region.
One of the Arab world’s most influential Sunni clerics, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, urged the faithful this week to fight alongside Sunni rebels against Shiite Hezbollah and President Bashar Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam.
Hezbollah’s involvement in the battle over strategic Qusair has also raised tensions with Syrian rebels who have threatened to target the militia’s bases in Lebanon, and with Sunnis in Lebanon who support the rebels.
Clashes between Sunnis and Alawites erupted Sunday evening in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, wounding at least 14 people, according to the state-run National News Agency.
Also Sunday, three rockets from Syria struck northeastern Lebanon, a day after 18 rockets and mortar rounds hit Lebanon’s eastern Baalbek region, a Hezbollah stronghold.
From Saturday night into Sunday, Hezbollah encircled and ambushed Syrian rebels and allied Lebanese fighters whom they suspected of rocketing Baalbek, a Lebanese security official said.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has linked his militia’s fate to the survival of Assad’s regime, but pledged in a televised speech last month that he would keep the battle out of Lebanon.
Hezbollah is the most dominant faction in Lebanon’s patchwork of ethnic and religious groups. A backlash against Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and a creeping destabilization of Lebanon could hurt the group’s standing at home.
Events in Lebanon could spin out of control, even if rival Lebanese groups don’t want Syria’s war to be exported to Lebanon, said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. With Lebanese fighters increasingly engaged on opposite sides in Syria, “the worst is yet to come” in Lebanon, he said.