An estimated 17 Lebanese soldiers have been killed and 35 others wounded in clashes in the port city of Sidon, about 28 miles south of Beirut. At least two gunmen, and possibly up to 25, were also killed, and fighting has spread to the northern city of Tripoli.
Clashes reportedly broke out Sunday after Lebanese police arrested a follower of hardline Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir at a checkpoint. Supporters of Assir reportedly opened fire on the checkpoint. Assir is known for his criticism of the Syrian regime and for his public calls for disarming the Shiite group Hezbollah, which has been fighting alongside Assad’s forces in Syria. In a video posted online, Assir accused the army of association with Hezbollah and Iran. On Monday, the Lebanese army reportedly seized a complex belonging to Assir. According to a judicial source, Lebanon’s military prosecutor has issued arrest warrants for the cleric and 123 of his followers. The renewed violence has come after fighting last week in Sidon between Assir’s supporters and Hezbollah supporters sparked by the Syrian conflict. However, this is the first instance of direct fighting between the Lebanese army and a domestic faction since the beginning of the Syrian uprising.
Foreign ministers from the international “Friends of Syria” group have pledged urgent support to Syrian opposition forces. Ministers from the 11 core members, which include the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, released a statement after meeting in Qatar Saturday agreeing “to provide urgently all the necessary material and equipment to the opposition on the ground.” However, it is unclear what each country will deliver. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the decision was “not to seek a military solution” but to balance power for a political solution to the conflict. Syria’s foreign ministry criticized the decision saying arming rebel groups would be “very dangerous” and will prolong violence. At a news conference in Damascus Monday, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem additionally said Syria would attend peace talks that the United States and Russia are working to plan in Geneva, but “not to hand over power to the other side.” Meanwhile, Syrian forces have reportedly increased attacks on opposition position in the suburbs north of Damascus. Additionally, rebel fighters stepped up attacks in the northern city of Aleppo in efforts to reverse recent gains by government forces.