Foreign and Defense Policy, Middle East and North Africa

Firefight in Lebanon portends further sectarian strife

Lebanon’s Daily Star published a report yesterday that Hezbollah had deployed fighters to capture or kill cleric Ahmad al-Assir before the clash in Sidon last week. Although the LAF and Hezbollah denied the allegations, interviews suggest otherwise, reflecting growing threats to Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance.

Al-Assir’s rise to prominence (see here for more on the “Assir Phenomenon”) coincided with the outbreak of civil war in Syria. The Sunni Salafist cleric’s sermons are filled with sectarian rhetoric that excoriates Hezbollah fighters and Shi’a militants for their role in protecting Assad. Beyond his fiery oratory, Assir has also directly challenged Hezbollah by blockading roads, clashing with Hezbollah supporters, and threatening to destroy property owned by Shi’a in Lebanon.

Things came to a head last week when one of his supporters was detained at a military checkpoint. In response, Assir’s supporters ambushed the Lebanese Armed Forces, triggering a two-day gun battle in the streets of Sidon around the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque between the LAF (reportedly in addition to Hezbollah fighters) and Assir’s forces. Eventually, Assir and about twenty of his supporters were forced to flee and have since gone into hiding somewhere around Sidon.

The increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict is worrisome. The Sunni cleric has defied the Lebanese government by arming himself and his group. Sources are reporting that Assir’s fighters hail from a wide cross-section of the Muslim world, including Sudan, Bangladesh, and Iraq. Moreover, the integration of Hezbollah supporters with the LAF has led many to claim that the Lebanese Army is no longer neutral and is instead targeting Sunnis. These fears have incited Sunni protests in Tripoli, further stoking sectarian tensions.

Complicating matters, the Sidon incident and Syrian violence are contributing to political gridlock and dissent in the Lebanese government.  The Al-Mustaqbal newspaper partly blamed Hezbollah for the violence, while Maronite bishops condemned the rearmament of political groups. Meanwhile, lawmakers refuse to decide on key legislation in parliament and PM Tamman Salam has been unable to form a new government.

In spite of deepening divides and Hezbollah’s activity in Syria, the group still has the capability to influence events in Lebanon, as its joint operation with the LAF in Sidon attests. Yet Hezbollah and Lebanon are still vulnerable. If a lone firebrand cleric from a small town can encourage massive violence and political unrest, a Lebanese civil war might be more likely than we think.

Zach Huffman is an intern at the American Enterprise Institute. 

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