The End of Lebanese factional Fighting?

Jerusalem Post- 25/06/2008

A month ago, a deal was signed between the Lebanese government and opposition in the Qatari capital of Doha. The deal ended two weeks of fighting that saw the Shi’ite Hizbullah and its allies occupying West Beirut. However, events since the signing suggest that the May fighting may have been only the first round. Eight people were killed and 48 were wounded in fierce clashes between Sunni and pro-Hizbullah gunmen in Tripoli this week. The fighting was the most visible result yet of a broader process currently brewing in parts of Lebanon. In the face of the “humiliation” suffered by Lebanon’s Sunnis at the hands of Hizbullah, extremist Sunni groups appear to be mobilizing for conflict against the Shi’ite militia. As they do so, indications are emerging of possible backing for their efforts by regional powers. It is a murky, complex area, in which Lebanon analysts are detecting the fingerprints of a variety of regional players. Lebanon’s Sunni Islamists are strongest in the north of the country, with Tripoli the center of their activities.

While Sa’ad Hariri’s moderate al-Mustaqbal movement is still considered to enjoy the support of the majority of the country’s Sunnis, Salafi (Sunni fundamentalist) preachers are making headway among a significant number of young men. One such preacher, Hassan Al-Shahal, who heads the Institute for Islamic Call and Guidance, was quoted in the Egyptian Al-Ahram newspaper last week as saying that Hariri and al-Mustaqbal had done “nothing to defend Ahl al-Sunna” (the Sunni people). Other Salafis in the Tripoli area have expressed themselves in more militant terms. A group calling itself the “Sunni Islamic Resistance Brigades” issued a leaflet earlier this month threatening a “blow with an iron hand against those responsible for the repeated crimes against the rights of the Sunni sect.” The leaflet referred to Hizbullah as the “mercenaries of the rule of the Jurisprudent,” i.e. of Iran, and promised to ‘cut off’ any hand raised against the Sunnis. Disparate armed Sunni groups and Salafi preachers exist in the Tripoli area. But if an element of Lebanon’s Sunnis is turning toward greater militancy, the key question is, what organizational form is this likely to take? A number of active Salafi-jihadi groups exist further south, in the Sidon area.

These organizations, however, are centered on the Palestinian population in Lebanon, rather than Lebanon’s native Sunnis. They include such groups as Usbat al-Ansar, Jund al-Sham, and Fatah al-Islam – the latter of which was decimated by the Lebanese army last year in the fighting at the Palestinian refugee camp at Nahr el-Bared. These Palestinian groups are considered by many of the most astute Lebanese analysts to possess links to the Syrians. Both Jund al-Sham and Fatah al-Islam have been involved in recent days in attacks on the Lebanese army. Fatah al-Islam’s leader, the Palestinian Shaker al-Abssi, has apparently re-surfaced in the last days, posting a message to followers denouncing Hariri, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the Lebanese army. Abssi’s Syrian links are fairly well documented, and these Palestinian Salafi groups are unlikely to emerge as authentic reflections of the turn toward greater militancy of Salafi elements among Lebanese Sunnis. Rather, their activities may well be the latest example of the venerable Syrian practice of avoiding defeat by backing more than one side. Another possible focus for Sunni militancy is al-Qaida, whose deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri recently delivered a speech focusing on Lebanon as one of the “frontline forts” of Muslims. Increasingly harried in Iraq, there have been rumors that al-Qaida may turn its attentions to Lebanon. But while Zawahiri criticized Hizbullah and Iran, a recent study noted that he neither defined Lebanon as a center for jihad for his movement, nor recommended jihad against Lebanon’s Shi’ites. Rather, he has been equally critical of both Hizbullah and the Lebanese government – while hoping to use Lebanon to recruit new followers for operations further afield. It may well be that Zawahiri, aware of the strength of Hizbullah, prudently wishes to avoid a head-on confrontation with it. Thus, no obvious crystallizing force yet exists in Lebanon to bring together the unmistakable deep anger among many Sunnis following the May events, and the turn by a significant number of young men toward the disparate world of Salafi groups in northern Lebanon.

However, an informed source in Saudi Arabia, with good connections in the court, was recently told that Riyadh was left humiliated and furious after the Doha agreement. In particular, the damage suffered from gunshots at the Saudi Embassy in Beirut, which is near Hariri’s Qoreitem headquarters, was galling. In future, he was told, the Saudis would be changing their approach in Lebanon – offering backing for the “bearded ones” – that is, Sunni Islamist groups. Whatever these statements mean in practice – and there is little concrete evidence to explain them as yet – they suggest that the Doha agreement, far from ending unrest in Lebanon, may well be remembered as opening the door to a period of greater strife still ahead. The fighting in Tripoli this week may well have been an early manifestation of this. From Israel’s perspective, it is worth noting that a point of agreement between Islamists, both Sunni and Shi’ite, is their equal hatred of Jews and Zionism. This fact notwithstanding, it is also the case that strategic and sectarian rivalries are causing these warring siblings to spend an increasing amount of time focusing their skills in violence and invective against one another.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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