Clashes between the Lebanese army and followers of extremist cleric Ahmad al-Assir broke out in the southern city of Sidon this week, continuing for two straight days before entering into an apparent lull. According to Lebanese officials, 16 soldiers were killed and more than 100 wounded since the arrest of an al-Assir follower prompted an alleged militia attack on an army checkpoint. Ahmad al-Assir remains at large, with some speculating that he has fled to Syria.
The al-Assir phenomenon has caught the entire Lebanese political spectrum off guard. Political, legal and security institutions have thus far been hesitant in their response to the rising number of incidences that are occurring outside the context of traditional alignments represented by the March 8 and March 14 Alliances.
Ahmad al-Assir is the imam of the Bilal bin Rabbah mosque in Sidon. His fame spiked several months ago when he began speaking out against Hezbollah and the regimes in Syria and Iran. Besides the usual arguments about Hezbollah’s weapons – concerns that are echoed by the opposition- al-Assir went beyond conventional Lebanese political discourse by stressing the sectarian differences between Sunni and Shiite.
The two main forces driving the al-Assir phenomenon are the deterioration of traditional Sunni leadership and Hezbollah’s support of al-Assad in the Syrian conflict. Al-Assir simply rose to fill the void in the Sunni street after the post-Doha agreement political and financial deterioration of the Future movement in Sidon, and more recently, the removal of Saad Hariri as prime minister. To put it another way, the Future-stream leadership relinquished its control of Lebanon to the so-called ‘Islamic current’ that proved more dynamic in responding to the challenges of the moment.
Regionally, the fall of al-Qusayr inaugurated a new phase in the Syrian conflict. Hezbollah’s interference triggered not only an expansion of regional fighting, but also a wave of responses from Hezbollah’s critics, which in turn is intensifying sectarian divisions in Lebanon and beyond. The al-Assir phenomenon illustrates the extent of the tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon, tensions which are now manifesting in their open support of the two sides of the Syrian conflict.
Yet both Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon will point at the other side and claim that orders are coming from Damascus or Doha; the outside powers seeking to tip the sectarian scales in Lebanon. The Sunni camp claims that what is happening in Sidon was planned by the Syrian regime in an attempt to respond to Doha’s efforts to arm the Syrian opposition. These allegations raise further international concerns regarding al-Assad’s capacity to transfer the war out of Syria and into neighboring countries, particularly Lebanon, in order to increase the strategic costs of removing the ruling Syrian regime for both Arab and Western countries and force a re-think of the wisdom of arming the Syrian opposition.
The Shiite side is also being provided with propaganda fodder. Last Saturday in Doha, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani declared at the “Friends of Syria” meeting that there will be a roadmap with a specific timetable for the political process in Syria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also confirmed that Washington would raise the level of military support for the Syrian opposition in order to achieve balance with the Assad regime, thus in theory forcing it to seek a political settlement. This conference took place after the Syrian regime (supported by Hezbollah and Russia) made significant advances on the battleground.
Shiites believe that by providing the opposition with sufficient weapons and training, Western countries and their Arab allies aim to remove Hezbollah from the Syrian equation. A further way to achieve this is distracting it with internal conflicts, and that’s where the Saudi and Qatari proxies in Lebanon come into play. Ahmed al-Assir and Salim al-Rafii’s jihadist calls have come in response to Hezbollah’s public involvement in Syria. Devising clashes and internal fighting between Hezbollah and other Lebanese groups will ultimately weaken Hezbollah and keep it out of Syria while the Syrian opposition makes its way to the center of Damascus.
In this sense, the Syrian crisis is having a substantial impact on Lebanon, and any attempt at damage mitigation is frustrated by the high degree of political polarization at the local level, as well as the entrenched links between Lebanese groups and outside powers.
Suzane Mneimneh is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com