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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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