HERMEL, Lebanon: Two Lebanese Salafist sheikhs called Monday for a jihad to defend Sunnis in war-ravaged Syria following what they said was Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian fighting on the side of President Bashar Assad’s forces.
The calls by Sidon’s Sheikh Ahmad Assir and Tripoli’s Sheikh Salem alRifai, staunch supporters of the Syrian uprising, came as the newly appointed head of Syria’s opposition National Coalition warned that Hezbollah’s role in fighting in the central Syrian province of Homs amounted to a “declaration of war.”
“What is happening in Homs is a declaration of war against the Syrian people and the Arab League should deal with it on this basis,” George Sabra said in Istanbul shortly after the opposition bloc announced his appointment as interim chief. “The Lebanese president and the Lebanese government should realize the danger that it poses to the lives of Syrians and the future relations between the two peoples and countries.”
His statement follows reports that fighters from Hezbollah were taking the lead in the Syrian regime’s battle against rebel groups the Al-Qusair area of Homs.
Speaking to his followers at a news conference at Bilal bin Rabah Mosque in east Sidon Monday night, Assir called for “a jihad in Syria, particularly in Al-Qusair.” He vowed to establish what he termed “Free Resistance Brigades” starting from Sidon and urged Sunni scholars to endorse his decision.
Assir also called for forming “secret armed groups for self-defense in case [ Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan] Nasrallah decided to start fighting in Lebanon as he is doing in Syria.”
“We in Lebanon are today [caught] between the Zionist hammer and the anvil of Iran’s party arms [Hezbollah], which have been directed internally. Therefore, every Muslim in Lebanon or abroad is duty-bound to respond to the [jihad] appeal and support the oppressed in Syria, particularly in Al-Qusair,” Assir said in a statement.
Also responding to Hezbollah’s role in the Syria war, Rafei called for “a general mobilization” to help Sunnis in Al-Qusair.
Addressing his followers at Taqwa Mosque in Tripoli, Rafei said: “As Hezbollah is sending fighters to defend minority Shiite areas as it claims, we will also send men and arms to our Sunni brothers in Al-Qusair.”
Earlier Monday, a senior Hezbollah official defended the party’s role in helping Lebanese Shiites living in Syrian towns and villages to protect themselves against rebel assaults, saying this was “a national duty.”
“What Hezbollah is doing toward this issue is a national and moral duty in protecting the Lebanese in border villages,” Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, deputy head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council, told a rally in the southern town of Mayfadoun to mark one week after a Hezbollah fighter was killed in Syria.
“Are we required to leave our people in border villages exposed to killings, kidnapping, slaughter and displacement?” he asked. Qaouk praised Hezbollah fighters killed in battle with Syrian rebels as “martyrs” for Lebanon.
Hezbollah, which denies involvement in the fighting in Syria, has said it is helping Lebanese Shiites living in Syrian border towns to defend themselves against rebel assaults.
Meanwhile, residents in the city of Hermel and nearby towns in the Bekaa Valley near the border with Syria were on edge Monday, fearing a repeat of the weekend volley of rockets unleashed by Syrian rebels.
Schools in Hermel and the surrounding border towns of Al-Qasr, Hawsh Sayyed Ali and Sahlat al-Miyah were closed as a precautionary measure after residents said they feared a recurrence of rocket attacks over the weekend that caused material damage, but no casualties.
Work at government departments and public utilities came to a standstill, apparently affected by the tension in the area and fears of renewed shelling.
Fears of renewed rocket attacks came after residents in Hermel said they again received text messages Monday from the rebel Free Syrian Army and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, warning them against approaching government offices, hospitals, the serail and the Imam Ali Mosque in Hermel, schools and Hezbollah-affiliated centers in the city.Two rockets slammed into the heart of Hermel Sunday for the first time, heightening fears that the 2-year-old war in Syria was spilling over into Lebanon.
The Lebanese Army said in a statement the 107 mm rockets “caused material damage to some houses, but there were no casualties.” It added the Army went on alert and took the necessary measures, including identifying the source of fire.
Residents threatened anew to take matters into their own hands should the state fail to protect them against Syrian rebel attacks. National figures and parties in Hermel condemned the “shelling by armed gangs in Syria” and urged the Lebanese state and President Michel Sleiman to take measures to protect citizens.
“Hermel’s residents will defend themselves if the state abandoned them,” the parties said in a statement issued after their meeting in Hermel.
Hermel residents said Monday heavy clashes could be heard around the border town of Al-Qusair.
Human Rights Watch called on both the Syrian regime and rebel forces to end “indiscriminate cross-border attacks” on Lebanon, warning that they violate international law. “All parties to the conflict in Syria should stop indiscriminate cross-border attacks on inhabited areas in Lebanon,” the New York-based rights group said in a report Monday.