In a soccer stadium in Lebanon’s southern city of Sidon, thousands of Sunnis gathered last weekend to rail against Shiite Hezbollah’s deepening role in the Syrian war. But even with a new rallying call, Lebanon’s Sunnis remain rudderless and fractured, forced to temper their war cries.

A powerful military and political force in Lebanon, Hezbollah has pledged all-out backing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his war against largely Sunni rebel forces, sharpening sectarian divides in Syria’s vulnerable smaller neighbor. But as young Sunnis here accuse Hezbollah of waging war against their brethren in Syria, the limits of their ability to push back have been highlighted.

A wave of assassinations of political figures who opposed Hezbollah and the Syrian state’s influence in Lebanon — most notably former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005 — has weakened Sunni political power over the past decade. The influence of Hariri’s son, Saad, who took over the mantle of leader of the Future Movement, Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni political party, has ebbed since he moved overseas for security reasons.

The void is yet to be filled, leaving Lebanon’s Sunnis without a galvanizing leader who can unite a credible opposition against Hezbollah or calm the Sunni street.

In the absence of mainstream political leadership, young Sunnis are looking to figures such as Sidon’s firebrand cleric Ahmed Assir, who has catapulted to prominence over the past year as he capitalized on rising anti-
Shiite sentiment and talks of war with Hezbollah. But given their political and military constraints, analysts say, Sunnis’ frustrations are more likely to be vented in a continued drip of clashes, bombings and rocket fire.

An “anti-sectarian” demonstration against Hezbollah in central Beirut gathered a smattering of attendees from Lebanon’s liberal parties Sunday. But al-Jamaa al-
Islamiya, a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamist group, estimated that the rally it organized in Sidon drew 10,000. A carnival atmosphere permeated the crowd, which included families and young children, and cotton candy sellers meandered about. But anger was not far from the surface.

“From Sidon to Qusair, to Aleppo, we salute!” the chants rose into the evening air from the packed bleachers as the demonstrators expressed solidarity with their fellow Sunnis in Syria. “Now Bashar al-Assad and his Hezbollah militias are preparing for an attack on Aleppo. It will be their cemetery!” one speaker said to a roar from the crowd.

Later, young men in black headbands emblazoned with the shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith, melted into the night as stalls on the stadium grounds sold knives, toy guns and military gear.

The security outside was testament to the sensitivity of the rally in a city where Shiites and Sunnis live side by side. In addition to dozens of Jamaa al-Islamiya’s black-clad guards, police and Lebanese army troops swarmed the area, while 10 armored personnel carriers formed a line on the street outside.

Abedelrahman Badie, a 20-year-old Sunni carrying a black flag bearing the words “God is Great,” said he had come to protest Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, which he said also spelled danger for Sunnis in Lebanon.

“We need to be armed, because otherwise we will be killed,” he said. “We have to be ready; we don’t know when [Hezbollah] will turn their guns on us here. We used to think we had strength, but now we’ve realized how weak we’ve become. We need to unite.”

But the prospect appears unlikely. Although the rally was described in the Lebanese news media was organized by Jamaa al-Islamiya and Assir, the Sidon cleric was notably absent, with rumors of a falling-out between Assir and the Islamist group.

Sunnis “are one hand in our emotions, but in practice we are not,” said Israa, an event organizer who did not want her last name published because she was not authorized to speak to the press. “The youth are angry about Hezbollah’s genocide in Syria. We are looking for a commander, but we have not found one yet.”

While Sunnis scramble to unify, Hezbollah, which receives financing and weapons from Iran, commands far-reaching support among Lebanese Shiites.

“The Shia in Lebanon have one strong political regional backing force — that is Iran,” said Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University. “Sunnis don’t have a similar situation; there are so many Sunni countries with different political agendas who vie for influence.”

Fears of a street war

Lebanon’s Sunnis are also militarily weak in the face of Hezbollah, which has a fighting force generally considered more powerful than the Lebanese army.

Still raw in the Sunni community’s collective consciousness is the memory of its stinging defeat in 2008 clashes between Hezbollah militants and Hariri supporters, when Hezbollah seized streets in largely Sunni West Beirut.

“Hezbollah is militarily organized, well armed and financed, [which] makes it unlikely for another group with much less firepower and organization and skills to try and challenge it,” Salamey said. “But that’s not a factor that prevents a war in Lebanon, because wars aren’t all fought in trenches. We could see a war of car bombs, assassinations and kidnappings.”

To an extent, that has already begun. The rebel Free Syrian Army has threatened to strike against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and rockets have fallen in Shiite areas of the Bekaa Valley with increasing frequency since Hezbollah announced late last month that it would fight in Syria until victory. In recent weeks, residents of Hermel, a Shiite town, have accused people who live in Aarsal, a Sunni town in the border hills just a few miles from Syria, of firing the rockets at them. Aarsal officials accused Hezbollah gunmen of shooting dead the brother of the Sunni town’s mayor, in an apparent retaliation after a new volley hit Hermel on Tuesday.

The city of Tripoli has been convulsed by fighting between pro- and anti-Assad factions, while clashes broke out in the suburbs of Beirut again Tuesday.

There are fears that comments by prominent regional religious figures could fan the flames. Youssef al-Qaradawi, a Muslim Brotherhood cleric whose televised speeches draw tens of millions of viewers, recently called for jihad against Hezbollah and Assad. The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, the most senior Sunni religious figure in that country, publicly praised his stance.

“The sectarian war has already started,” said Mohammed, a bronzed 50-year-old at the Sidon rally who said he had served for 25 years in the Lebanese army and did not wish to give his last name because of sectarian tension in the city. “The Sunnis have arms . . . but Hezbollah have tons of weapons; it can’t be compared,” he said.

At the boiling point

Friction has been building since the start of the Syrian conflict. Last year, two of Assir’s bodyguards were killed in clashes with Hezbollah, and last month his supporters blocked roads in Sidon to prevent the burial of a Hezbollah fighter killed in Syria. But the Sidon cleric says the situation has now reached the boiling point.

“We have reached the point where we are 100 percent convinced we cannot live with this party . . . we can never live or coexist with them again,” he said in an interview in his home, which sits opposite his mosque in Sidon’s suburbs. He talks of waging war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, but acknowledges that he can’t do that until his followers are better-armed.

Lebanon’s Sunnis “don’t have the capability either to help the Syrians or do anything about it here,” he said. “After we get arms, we will go to war.”

That, he says, will happen after the rebels win in Syria. But if they don’t? “It will take more time,” he admits.

Liz Sly in Beirut contributed to this report.