SIDON, Lebanon — The worst fighting in Lebanon in years, which wracked this coastal city one hour south of Beirut this week, was touched off by an influx of foreign fighters from Syria, Palestinian camps and other Arab countries into the compound of a radical Sunni cleric, according to knowledgeable people on both sides of the conflict.
The foreign fighters included members of Jabhat al Nusra, a Syrian rebel group also known as the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with al Qaida, according to the accounts, including that of a Lebanese military official. Nusra is considered the most effective rebel group fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, and its presence inside Lebanon, if confirmed, would provide evidence not just that the Syrian conflict has spread, but that Nusra fighters have extended their influence outside Syria and Iraq.
A worker for a non-governmental organization in the Ein al Hilweh refugee camp near Sidon told McClatchy that the fighting was sparked when a group of Syrians fresh from that country’s battlefields, as well as fighters from other Arab countries, on Sunday attacked a Lebanese armed forces checkpoint near the mosque and apartment of controversial Sunni cleric Ahmad al Assir. At least three soldiers were killed.
“At least 60 Syrian guys from Jabhat al Nusra had joined with Assir in the last few weeks,” said the worker, a well-known aid official who identifies himself as Abu Hussein, a nickname that means father of Hussein.
Abu Hussein said Assir also had received support from “at least 30 Palestinians” affiliated with Jund al Sham, a terrorist organization whose name has been shared by a variety of al Qaida-linked groups and that is influential in the Ein al Hilweh camp, as well as what he called “jihadis from other Arab countries that had been fighting in Syria.”
Abu Hussein credited the Nusra fighters for the strong military performance of Assir’s followers in the clashes, which killed about 18 soldiers and wounded scores more.
“These Assir guys had no experience or training, so there was a military commander who had come in to help, I think he was from Nusra. This is why so many soldiers died,” Abu Hussein said.
As many as 300 fighters were in the compound, according to Abu Hussein, about 100 of whom were unaccounted for on Tuesday, including Assir. The whereabouts also were unknown of a former pop star turned Islamist militant, Fadel Shaker, who took time during the siege to record a morbid video released online in which he claimed that he personally killed two soldiers.
Lebanese officials have been inconsistent in totaling arrests and casualties from the battle, but people on the scene estimated that roughly 40 of Assir’s men were killed, with 60 wounded and 70 captured. It’s not known what happened to the others.
“Nusra fighters staged a breakout toward the end of the fight and many escaped with Assir,” said Abu Hussein,
A Lebanese army intelligence official confirmed the presence of foreign fighters inside the compound, saying that an emotional and ill-advised reaction to the checkpoint attack by army officers on the scene led to the initially heavy army casualties.
“They didn’t take Assir’s men seriously and tried to storm the compound, not realizing that Nusra and al Qaida terrorists were inside,” said the official, who cannot be named in keeping with army regulations. “That’s why so many were killed and wounded in the first hours of the battle.”
On Monday, Hezbollah fighters who had joined the fight alongside Lebanese army troops said that they had found the bodies of foreign fighters as well. One Hezbollah fighter, overheard by two Western reporters, told his commander that one sniper had carried a Syrian identity card from the city of Aleppo.
Lebanon’s fractious political system has come under increasing strain as the predominately Shiite supporters of Hezbollah defend the group’s open military campaign to quell the primarily Sunni Muslim uprising against the Assad regime.
Many Lebanese Sunnis and other opponents of Syria, which occupied Lebanon for nearly 30 years, have called upon Hezbollah to end its involvement in Syria. At the same time, the Sunnis have sent a significant amount of material and military support to the rebels. The tensions have led to an increasing number of sectarian clashes throughout Lebanon, of which the fight in Sidon was the deadliest for the Lebanese army.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.