BEIRUT (Reuters) - President Michel Suleiman has called on the Lebanese Shi‘ite Muslim Hezbollah movement to pull its guerrillas out of Syria, saying any further involvement in its neighbour’s civil war would fuel instability in Lebanon.
Hezbollah militants spearheaded the recapture of the strategic border town of Qusair two weeks ago by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which now appear to be preparing for an offensive in the northern city of Aleppo.
“If they take part in a battle for Aleppo, and more Hezbollah fighters are killed, it will lead to more tension,” Suleiman told the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir in an interview published on Thursday. “This should end in Qusair, and (Hezbollah) should return home.”
Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria against mainly Sunni Muslim rebels has further inflamed sectarian rivalry in Lebanon, where fighting between Alawite pro-Assad and Sunni Muslim anti-Assad gunmen in the northern city of Tripoli has killed dozens.
Since the battle for Qusair started a month ago there have been frequent rocket attacks on Shi‘ite areas of eastern Lebanon from suspected rebel-held areas in Syria. A previously unknown Syrian rebel faction claimed responsibility this week for killing four Shi‘ite men in the Bekaa Valley on Sunday.
Lebanon is mired in political paralysis which has forced the delay of a parliamentary election and is holding up efforts to form a cabinet. The impasse, along with the influx of half a million Syrian refugees, led former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to appeal to Suleiman this week to act to stop “state collapse”.
Suleiman, a Maronite Christian, has become increasingly assertive in criticising Syria, which dominated its smaller neighbour militarily and politically for three decades before the outbreak of the uprising against Assad in 2011.
Lebanon’s National News Agency said Suleiman sent the Arab League a memorandum on Thursday requesting an end to Syrian violations of Lebanese sovereignty. He gave a similar note to the United Nations representative in Beirut earlier this week.
Suleiman has spoken out against Syrian military incursions into eastern Lebanon against rebel forces, and become more open in his criticism of Hezbollah’s military support for Assad.
The group, set up with Iranian support to fight Israeli occupation forces in southern Lebanon 30 years ago, is the only faction which kept its weapons after Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, saying they were to protect Lebanese from Israeli forces.
After Israeli air raids on targets near Damascus last month, Nasrallah said Hezbollah would support any efforts by Syrian authorities to encourage militant attacks on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, seized from Syria in the 1967 war.
“From the start I told them I do not accept such behaviour and I am against going to the Golan because this exposes (Hezbollah) and Lebanon to the Israeli enemy,” Suleiman said.
He also voiced concern about Lebanese Sunni fighters who have crossed into Syria to join rebels trying to topple Assad.
“When I spoke with President Barack Obama recently and he said he was worried by Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, I said immediately: ‘We’re also worried by the intervention of all Lebanese factions in Syria’.”
Reporting by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon