A man surveys the wreckage of fighting in Sidon. Photo by Sam Tarling.
Relatively speaking, Lebanon is a madhouse. In the West, we're used to being bombarded with images of Kanye West and Kate Upton, but in Lebanon the hero-worship is mostly reserved for politicians, clerics, and warlords. It seems like every other street corner is fly-postered with the giant, grinning heads of political movers, shakers, and agitators past and present, not letting death obstruct their view of the daily insanity that is Lebanese life.
Some of the worst fighting has taken place in the southern city and Sunni stronghold of Sidon. In the last two days alone, over 40 people have lost their lives in clashes between Sunnis loyal to hardline Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir and the interdenominational Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). This latest outburst of violence began on Sunday evening, when it was reported that one of Assir’s bodyguards and aides had been arrested by the LAF. In response to this, Assir ordered his men to launch an attack on an army outpost, killing six soldiers and wounding a dozen more, before holing up in his compound and vowing to "stay in the mosque until the last drop of blood."
To make things even more insane than a popular cleric starting a death or glory battle with the armed forces, popular Lebanese singer Fadel Shaker also decided to get in on the action. Shaker boasted online about having killed two “pig” soldiers, which is the equivalent of George Michael waking up one morning and informing his Twitter followers that he'd spent the previous evening going nuts with a gun at the nearest NYPD precinct.
By the end of Monday night, Assir’s mosque was in smouldering ruins. Both he and Shaker are said to have escaped, but 16 soldiers and over 25 militants lay dead and Lebanon’s tense intersect relations are more fraught than ever. On top of this, 94 wounded were rushed to local hospitals and many civilians had been trapped in their houses for days as they sheltered from the violence. Assir and Shaker, their tails between their legs, have most likely sought refuge with the FSA in Syria. If you have to choose the most dangerous country in the world as a hiding place, the future probably isn’t looking too bright for you.
Lebanese singer Fadel Shaker brags about killing two Lebanese soldiers.
Assir’s main contention is that the LAF, though harboring Sunnis and Salafis within its ranks, are in cahoots with the political militant group Hezbollah, and are targeting Sunnis who show dissent against their stranglehold on Lebanon. These fears, shared by many of the country's large Sunni population, haven't exactly been alleviated by reports that the LAF had been coordinating with and assisted by Hezbollah in the fight for Sidon.
While this resentment is likely to linger, for Assir, it is now essentially game over. His drastic and extraordinary decision to attack the military has not only cost him the support of Sunni moderates but has also placed a price and arrest warrant on his head that no kind of YouTube-based PR drive will be able to shake off.
Hezbollah's rise to power in Lebanon accelerated in 2008, after they forced the collapse of the government. They still face allegations that they assassinated Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, a crime for which several high-ranking members of Hezbollah have been indicted by a court backed by the United Nations.
For the last few years, Lebanon’s Sunni population have felt increasingly marginalized, forced to watch as Iranian and Syrian influences dominate domestic affairs and their de facto leader, the assassinated Prime Minister’s son, Saad Hariri, remains in hiding after (you guessed it) another failed assassination attempt.
Sunni Cleric Ahmad al-Assir lashes out at the Lebanese Armed Forces.
All this means there is a massive power vacuum for the Sunnis in Lebanon. All moderates tend to be pushed to the sides by extremists like Assir, whose popularity, until they decide to instruct personal militias to attack the army, is allowed to grow for want of any kind of middle ground. The situation in neighboring Syria, where the majority Sunni population is engaged in a civil war with the forces of Alawite leader, Bashar al-Assad, has exacerbated the tensions in Lebanon. The region as a whole is slowly dividing itself along sectarian lines.
Assir started his rise from small-time cleric to media sweetheart and wannabe warlord two years ago, luring in frustrated Sunnis with protests and fiery rhetoric aimed squarely at Hezbollah and Assad's Syrian regime. His attack on the military has shocked and appalled many people within Lebanon, even those who agree with his positions on Hezbollah and Syria. However, Assir also has a large amount of support from hardline Sunnis who see him as a political counter-weight to Hezbollah.
Assir is a clown and the Lebanese media was his circus, and any legitimate concerns he may have had about Hezbollah or Syria have now been blown out of the water. The man will now probably not see Lebanese soil again for many years to come. The worrying thing is how quickly Assir grew in popularity among Lebanese moderates who, despite his vehement fundamentalism and propensity for violence, often referred to him as “cute,” “funny,” or “harmless."
But if Assir is the clown, then Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is its ringmaster. With Sunni/Shi’ite relations at an all-time low across the world, Lebanon is at risk of all-out civil war, with pockets of violence frequently flaring up in Sidon, Tripoli, and the Bekaa Valley. And while Assir is right about the true nature of Hezbollah and their poisonous effect on Lebanon, installing him in their place would just be replacing one group of crazy-bearded Islamists with guns with another group of crazy-bearded Islamists with guns.
Lebanon needs to take a step back from the brink. It may not have the capacity to recover from another long and brutal civil war. Disarming militias and national unity should be a national priority, instead, however, all we've seen for years is more bloodshed.
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