Lebanon News

Tripoli sheikhs play down local Sunni fighter presence in Syria

File - Lebanese fighters gesture as they take a break from fighting in the northern city of Tripoli, Thursday, May 23, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Despite rumors of Sunni fighters flooding from Tripoli into Syria, two sheikhs from the northern city insist they discourage young men from participating in the war, putting the number of Tripolitans crossing the border in the mere hundreds.

Contradictory reports have emerged regarding the scope of involvement in the Syrian crisis by Lebanese parties on both sides of the political divide. Estimates for Hezbollah range in the low thousands. The number of Sunni Lebanese fighters from Tripoli, especially those who consider themselves Salafists, is harder to pin down.

A survey of the YouTube channels and social media sites frequented by Islamists and their supporters in Tripoli yields little conclusive information. Videos and photos supposedly taken by fighters in Qusair or the surrounding area often turn out to have been doctored or lifted from somewhere else.

Even first-person testimonies are impossible to authenticate. In one video, for example, a young fighter says he is a member of the Future Movement. The Sunni party denies it is involved militarily in the conflict.

A Salafist sheikh in Tripoli who is closely connected to the armed Syrian opposition agreed to speak to The Daily Star on the condition of anonymity.

He dismissed most of the claims about the presence of Lebanese Sunni fighters in Syria, emphasizing that the opposition is not in need of fighters so much as weapons, logistical support and relief for civilians in affected areas.

“Since the beginning of the events in Syria, the mujahedeen have been on the ground in Syria, but only for logistical support, particularly weapons [transfers],” he insisted.

The sheikh said out of all the factions fighting the Syrian regime, only the Nusra Front had put out an open call for fighters from around the word to undertake “jihad” in Syria.

Most religious leaders in Tripoli overwhelmingly and unequivocally support the Islamist currents of the opposition. But last year’s ambush in Tal Kalakh, in which a number of Tripoli Sunni youth were killed on their way to fight in Syria, caused Lebanon’s major Islamist groups to rethink how they provided support.

“[Tal Kalakh] was a big shock for the Salafists; they did not send [those young men to die] so casually,” the sheikh said.

Since then, he added, most of the Islamists in Tripoli have limited themselves to political support and relief work. He estimated that prior to the battle of Qusair, only between 60 or 70 fighters had gone to Syria, all of whom appeared to have returned safely.

“Everything changed after Hezbollah announced its participation” in the war, the sheikh said.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah confirmed in a highly publicized speech a few weeks ago that his party was fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops.

The Muslim Scholars’ Committee reacted by issuing a fatwa calling on young Sunnis to join the fight in Syria, especially in the battle for Qusair. Between 600 and 700 fighters heeded this call, the sheikh estimated.

He said the Future Movement was not participating, despite the party’s vocal support for the Syrian opposition. He pointed to the Future Movement’s admonishing of Shiekh Salem al-Rafei, a committee member, for urging Sunnis to fight, to which the imam responded: “I will withdraw my call when you stop the surge of Hezbollah fighters [into Syria].”

There have been rumors that some men were being paid to go into Syria, but the sheikh refuted this, saying that those who received money went out of religious or political conviction, but that providing for their family in the event of their death was their “duty” as a Muslim. Many sheikhs consider Gulf funds for fighters to be legitimate compensation under Islamic law.

Not all the members of the Council of Muslim Scholars agreed with the body’s decision to issue a call for Sunnis to join the fight. Council member Sheikh Nabil Rahim echoed the Salafist sheikh’s assertion that the armed opposition did not need more fighters.

The Syrian revolution’s problem isn’t a lack of people, but the fragmentation of the fighting forces, Rahim said.

“Every side has its own politics and style. It’s very difficult to succeed in this way,” he said. “Even if they had tens of thousands of fighters, this would have led to more fragmentation, and they still would have lost the [Qusair] battle.”

Rahim said he advised young men against going into Syria. Not only would their efforts be wasted due to the divisions in the opposition, he said, but they would also be a burden on the Syrian fighters due to their lack of military experience or knowledge of the area.

Moreover, he said, their presence gives credence to the regime’s claims that the armed opposition is made up of foreign terrorists and extremists.

“Even if these young people are going in response to what is happening and are willing to martyr themselves, this will only bring the struggle to Lebanon,” Rahim said. “This will lead to the total destruction of the country and everyone will lose.”

Rahim said Sunni religious leaders were split over how to support the Syrian opposition: “Some encourage fighters to go into Syria and actively work on supporting them in this, but there are those who have reservations and who oppose this.”

“They believe in supporting the Syrian revolution with money, politically, through media coverage and humanitarian aid to the refugees.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 19, 2013, on page 4.




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