Sunni Islamism Stirs in Lebanon

As the civil war in Syria grinds on and assumes an increasingly sectarian character, echoes of the strife are being heard across the border in Lebanon.

The main beneficiary of the Arab uprisings of the last year has been Sunni Islamism. In Syria, Sunnis are playing an increasingly important role in the rebellion against President Bashar Assad. In Lebanon, too, individuals and movements of this type are emerging to prominence and issuing a challenge to the dominant political force in the country – Hezbollah. Sunni northern Lebanon, in particular the town of Tripoli, is a center both of Sunni Islamism and of support for the Syrian rebellion. The town has become a gathering point for foreign jihadi fighters on their way to fight the Assad regime.

The fate of Lebanon has always been acutely influenced by events in its larger neighbor, to the sorrow of many Lebanese. Currently, too, the Assad regime and Hezbollah are members of the same Iran-led regional bloc.

Lebanese Sunnis are aware of this alliance. Most have not happily acquiesced to the de facto Shi’a domination of Lebanon. They are aware also that Hezbollah is actively aiding Assad. Many are keen to play their own part in the unfolding battle, and to launch a Sunni resistance both to contest Hezbollah’s dominance of Lebanon and to support their fellow Sunnis against Assad’s local allies.

The problem for Lebanese Sunnis wishing to express and organize their discontent with Hezbollah has been a de facto vacuum of leadership in the community. The March 14 movement led by Saad Hariri sought to challenge Hezbollah in May,2008, and was quickly swept off the streets by the Shi’a militia. Saad Hariri has not been in Lebanon since last April.

Few Sunnis now see Hariri as a potential leader of the country. The March 14 strategy was to oppose Hezbollah’s guns with an appeal to international legality. Hezbollah contemptuously rolled over this approach.

As a result of this vacuum, and perhaps also in line with the mood of the times, the stirrings of Sunni discontent against the de facto domination of the country by Hezbollah are taking Islamist form. Sunni anger is currently coalescing around the figure of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, a Salafi cleric from the town of Sidon, in the south of the country. Assir, the Imam of the Bilal Ibn Rabah mosque in Sidon, has achieved prominence over the last year because of his outspoken statements in opposition to Hezbollah. In particular, the Salafi sheikh has focused on the independent military capacity maintained by the Shi’a movement.

On June 23, in an interview on Al- Jadeed TV in west Beirut, Assir appeared to offer a direct challenge to Hezbollah’s independent weapons capacity and to its domination of the country.

“Either we live as equal partners,” he said, “or else, I swear by God, O Hassan Nasrallah and Nabih Berri, I, Ahmad Assir, will shed every drop of my blood to prevent you from relaxing until balance is restored to Lebanon.”

Two days later, gunmen fired on the offices of Al-Jadeed TV.

Following this interview, Assir launched a permanent demonstration in Sidon (with echoes of the sitin launched by Hezbollah and its allies in Beirut in late 2006 against the then-government of Fuad Siniora.) He has vowed to maintain this protest until the issue of Hezbollah’s independent arms capacity is resolved.

Assir’s rise to prominence is built on a perception that he is stating openly what many Sunnis are saying privately.

Thus, in spite of the apparently quixotic aspect of a provincial Lebanese Sunni cleric making demands of a powerful Iran-backed militia, Hezbollah and its allies are taking the latest developments seriously.

The emergence of Assir as a spokesman for Sunni grievances is going hand-inhand with a broader rise in Sunni militancy elsewhere in Lebanon. There are reports of military training of Sunni Lebanese volunteers in the Bekaa Valley, before they cross the border into Syria to fight Assad’s forces. In the Sunni heartland of rural northern Lebanon, sentiment in favor of the Syrian rebels runs high, increased by close acquaintance with Sunni refugees who have fled Syria for Lebanon over the course of the last year.

It is, of course, impossible to predict whether the current Sunni ferment in Lebanon will take on the form of action against the de facto Shi’a domination of the country. Outside of the Salafi fringe, the Lebanese Sunnis lack a deep tradition of paramilitary activity.

Large numbers of more middle-class and Westernized Lebanese Sunnis distrust the Islamists. Hezbollah, meanwhile, is a daunting, well armed and brutal foe.

Still, it is worth remembering that in the Lebanese sectarian system, nothing is forever.

The various sects reach their uneasy modus vivendi based on the relative power balance between them at any given time. Until 2011, the Shi’a power of Hezbollah, armed, trained and financed by Iran, seemed to brook no possible rivals. The civil war in Syria brings with it the undermining of Iran’s local Arab state ally, which formed a vital partner for Hezbollah and its allies in their domination of Lebanon.

This for Sunnis makes feasible, or at least imaginable, a challenge to the current situation of Hezbollah/Shi’a domination. As a result of the Syrian civil war, the first stirrings of a Sunni attempt to once again “renegotiate” the sectarian balance of power in Lebanon are being felt.

This “re-negotiation,” if it happens, will be led by Sunnis. In Lebanon, however, they will face not a decrepit military-nationalist regime, but rather a powerful, mobilized, rival Shi’a Islamism. The Arab Spring, which should more accurately be called the Revolt of Sunni Islam, may be coming to Lebanon.

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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