04 July 2013

Hezbollah and Salafists Bringing Lebanon Into Syrian Conflict

Unless you are a very keen student of the Salafist movement in Lebanon, you've probably never heard of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir. At least not until recently.

Assir is a Lebanese Salafist cleric who popped up out of nowhere at the beginning of the Syrian civil war. He quickly rose to prominence through his passionate sermons, sharply criticizing the Hezbollah, the Shiite paramilitary group widely feared and disliked by the Sunni community of Lebanon. He is well known for his over-the-top tactics like blocking the highway to Sidon in July 2012, ostensibly in a bid to stop the flow of arms to Hezbollah.

Despite the fact that his father was Sunni and his mother was a Shia, his sermons are designed to incite sectarian hatred:
He once delivered a sermon at his mosque while holding a toy rifle. He told his Salafist supporters that the rifle was made in Iran and releases an audio in Arabic saying "kill Aisha" — Aisha is one of the wives of Muslim Prophet Muhammad, and is a subject of historical dispute between Sunnis and Shiites. It later turned out that the toy had nothing to do with Iran or Assir’s claims. It is manufactured in China and says in English, "Kill the hostages."
Throughout his meteoric rise Assir emphasized two points. One was his hatred for the Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad and he kept urging his followers to join the fight against him. The second was his hatred for the Hezbollah and he kept asking for the paramilitary organization to be disarmed and disbanded. As a corollary to that latter point, he was very critical of the Lebanese army as he believed (like many Sunnis in Lebanon) that they were in cahoots with the Hezbollah.  

Recently, with the Hezbollah joining the fight in Syria and helping Assad's army to retake a strategic city of Qusayr situated near the Lebanese border, Assir escalated his rhetoric against the Shiite paramilitary group. On 23 July, his followers attacked a Lebanese army check point near the southern city of Sidon and killed several officers and soldiers (reports range from 3 to 12).

In response to that, the army surrounded his compound and heavy fighting erupted. Initially, Assir followers suffered heavy casualties and it looked like the army was going to be able to overrun his headquarters. But according to the McClatchy News, fighters from the al-Nusra Front (a group linked to Al Qaeda and the most effective rebel force in Syria) came to his rescue. With the help of these battle-hardened Salafist soldiers, Assir and about 100 of his militants staged a breakout and escaped.
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. 
You might think that this is no big deal. Actually, it is.

First of all, it means that the al-Nusra Front is now expanding beyond Syria. As it is the most ruthless and successful armed group in Syria, its presence and growing influence in Lebanon and Iraq (surprisingly, against the wishes of Ayman al-Zawahiri) must be a source of worry for most regional actors.

Secondly, their presence in Sidon will be perceived as a response to the Hezbollah military campaign in Syria. It is a statement, as in, if you help Assad retake Qusayr we can come to your backyard and help Sunni groups against you. This is a very dangerous tit-for-tat game in a sharply divided country like Lebanon.

For its part, the Hezbollah already met the challenge and joined the Lebanese army to fight the remaining Salafists in Sidon. Predictably, this led to angry outbursts.
Sunni anger has intensified following reports that Hezbollah members were fighting alongside the Lebanese army during the Sidon clashes. The army has denied this was the case.
Despite the army's denials, some footage of Hezbollah soldiers with their yellow arm bands emerged. In fact, Hezbollah owned Al-Manar TV showed some soldiers taking away Sunni militants while shouting "Ya Zaynab" a popular Shiite battle cry, referring to the daughter of Ali, the first Imam for Shiites. The army's reaction was to issue a threat to anyone who reported that the Hezbollah was helping them.

In the meantime, as Sunni loyalists tried to reach the compound to show their support for Assir, they were blocked by the army. This led to days of violent protests in Sidon, Tripoli (Lebanon) and all over the country.

These protests highlight a significant problem in Lebanon: The army has been one of the few institutions that managed to remain above sectarian politics. But these incidents could change that very rapidly.
Yet since Hizbullah’s inclusion in Lebanon's government in 2008, the group’s influence on state institutions, including the army, has grown, feeding Sunni worries. Today many Sunnis accuse the army of cracking down disproportionately on Sunni militants, while Shia militias such as Hizbullah remain armed. Reports that Hizbullah fighters helped the army in Sidon did little to boost its neutral image. This anger and fear over a lack of representation, armed or otherwise, of the Sunni community helped Mr Assir build his following. Many see Mr Assir's rise as part of increased Sunni militancy in Lebanon, inspired in part by Syria’s co-religionist rebels, but also by a sense that no one else will defend their interests.
As I suggested, sectarian violence is a feature in Syria but it would definitely be a bug in Lebanon.

Finally, when collectively taken, these events point to a growing Shia-Sunni divide in the region. To be fair, Sunnis always considered the Shia kafir and the animosity between the two sects border on hatred. But in the current climate, it looks like Iran, Iraq and Syria are in perpetual struggle with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the historic sword of Sunni Islam, Turkey.

Unless a rapid solution is found to the Syrian civil war and cool down sectarian hostilities, what I assumed to be an attempt to bring stability to the region might end up in a catastrophe.

Read more here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/06/25/194944/al-qaida-linked-nusra-front-rebels.html#.UdBKLW15cpD#storylink=cpy

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