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May 9, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 966

Fear In Lebanon Over Possible Slide Into Sectarian War

May 9, 2013 | By E. B. Picali*
Lebanon | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 966

Introduction

The recent months have seen a considerable increase of tension between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Lebanon, to the extent that there is growing fear of a confrontation between the two sides – especially between the Shi'ite Hizbullah and Sunni Salafi elements. On February 27, 2013, Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki – both of them Shi'ites – expressed concern that a sectarian war might break out in the region, including in Lebanon. Al-Maliki said to the television channel Russia Today: "If [the Syrian opposition] wins [the war in Syria], civil war will break out in Lebanon [as well]…"[1] Nasrallah said in a speech he delivered that day: "There are those who are accelerating Lebanon's descent into sectarian fighting, in particular fighting between Sunnis and Shi'ites."[2] Two weeks later, Lebanese Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn, a Christian, likewise warned that "winds of civil war have appeared on the horizon."[3]

Arab and Lebanese press also warned against sectarian war in the country. Jean 'Aziz, a columnist for the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, claimed that the current climate in Lebanon is reminiscent of the eve of the civil war in 1975.[4] An April 2, 2013 editorial in the London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi claimed that "sectarian tension in Lebanon is awaiting only a match to light it," and that "Lebanon is gradually sliding towards the volcano of the Syrian revolution."[5]

The Sunni-Shi'ite strife in Lebanon is, to a great extent, a reflection of the sectarian tension in the region at large. This tension has grown in the last two years due to the emergence of a Sunni bloc in the region headed by Qatar and Turkey, which forms a counter-weight to the Shi'ite axis headed by Iran, and especially in light of Iran's involvement in Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf states. In addition to these regional factors, there are domestic factors that exacerbate the sectarian tension in Lebanon, namely: the involvement of the rival Lebanese factions in the Syrian war (the Shi'ite Hizbullah is fighting alongside the Assad regime against the Syrian rebels, most of whom are Sunni, whereas the Al-Mustaqbal faction and Salafis in Tripoli are supporting the rebels);[6] the exclusion of the Al-Mustaqbal faction, the primary representative of Lebanon's Sunnis, from the centers of power upon the establishment of the Hizbullah-dominated Mikati government in June 2011; Hizbullah's weapons, which many Sunnis believe are intended to guard sectarian, rather than national Lebanese, interests; and the growing power of the Salafis in Tripoli and of Salafi sheikh Ahmad Al-Asir of Sidon, who challenge Hizbullah's right to keep these weapons.

The sectarian tension in Lebanon has expressed itself in several violent incidents. The severest of them occurred on March 17, 2013, when four Sunni sheikhs were beaten and assaulted with cold weapons by Shi'ite youths in two different locations in Beirut. The incidents evoked a furious response by Sunnis, who held protests, blocked roads, burned tyres and even threw firebombs in Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon and Akkar (in Northern Lebanon).[7] The statement of Lebanese armed forces chief Jean Qahwaji, that March 17 had been "the most dangerous [day] in the last eight years in terms of [Lebanon's domestic] security,"[8] reflects the extent of the tension. However, it seems that tension between the sides rose even further in the last two weeks, after Salafi leaders issued fatwas calling on Sunni youths in Lebanon to embark on jihad in Syria in response to Hizbullah's involvement in the fighting there.

This report will review the escalation of sectarian tension in Lebanon during the recent months.

Salafi Sheikh Ahmad Al-Asir Spearheads The Sunni Conflict With Hizbullah

In the last two years since the fall of the Al-Hariri government, the banner of the Sunni struggle in Lebanon has been borne primarily by Islamist and Salafi forces in Tripoli, the Beqa' Valley (in eastern Lebanon), Beirut, Sidon and elsewhere. The most prominent leader of this struggle is Salafi sheikh Ahmad Al-Asir, the imam of the Balal bin Rabbah mosque in Sidon, who has challenged Hizbullah. He first spoke out against the organization's weapons,[9] later against its military involvement in Syria, and now also against its military presence in Sidon. Over time, this struggle has become a general campaign by the Sunni sect to restore its honor following its marginalization by the Shi'ite Hizbullah and Amal in the two years since the ouster of Sa'd Al-Hariri's government and since the onset of Hizbullah involvement in the Syrian war.


Salafi Sheikh Ahmad Al-Asir (left) and Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah (image:alarabiya.net)

It should be noted that Sheikh Al-Asir has frequently stressed that his activity – speeches, protests, rallies and marches – is not directed against the Shi'ite sect[10] but only against Hizbullah and Amal who, he says, are operating on orders from Iran. However, this distinction is problematic, since the overwhelming majority of the Shi'ites in Lebanon are affiliated with these two organization, and also because Al-Asir himself has frequently spoken in sectarian terms, e.g., when he said, "we [Sunnis] will not calm down until our demands are met and some of our honor is restored";[11] "the Sunni sect has suffered an injustice";[12] "the Sunni sect is acting like a defeated sect";[13] and "[It is my duty] to defend our people, the Sunni sect, in Syria."[14] He also declared the launching of a Sunni "intifada of honor," which began with protests by Islamist detainees in Lebanon and expanded into a struggle against Hizbullah's military presence in Sidon.[15]

Until not long ago, Al-Asir was considered a local Salafi leader whose influence is largely confined to Sidon. He received little support from his fellow Salafis in the north and east of the country – who were irked by his tendency to act without consulting them – or from other Sunni sectors, chiefly the Al-Mustaqbal faction. Recently, however, the sheikh managed to gain the support of Salafi elements in Tripoli, Beirut and the Beqa' Valley – and even of Al-Mustaqbal, though only temporarily and to a limited extent.

The attitude of the Salafi groups towards him started to change especially after, on November 11, 2012, a violent clash occurred in Sidon between Hizbullah supporters and Al-Asir and his followers, in which two of Al-Asir's bodyguards were killed and four of his followers were injured.[16] The incident apparently convinced Al-Asir that he must cooperate with his fellow Salafis, and also increased the Salafis' anger towards Hizbullah and their feelings of solidarity with Al-Asir. As a result, they drew closer to the sheikh and started backing his anti-Hizbullah activity, and he became a welcome guest among the Salafis throughout the country.[17] The change was reflected in a statement by Sheikh Da'i Al-Islam Al-Shahhal, founder of the Salafi movement in Lebanon, who said that the Sidon clash had not been directed only at Sheikh Al-Asir but rather at all Sunnis, and added: "The blood Hizbullah has spilled is not cheap, and we will not remain silent over this."[18]

Tensions Between Al-Asir And Hizbullah Peak; Al-Asir: I Am Willing To Be Martyred In This Struggle

Sunni-Shi'ite tensions in Lebanon peaked in late February and early March, 2013, after Al-Asir accused Hizbullah of setting up posts in two buildings near his mosque in order to monitor him, and of stationing fighters and storing weapons there.[19] He demanded that Hizbullah remove these posts, and declared his intention to organize a protest march on March 1, after the Friday prayer, from the mosque to one of the buildings. He even said he was willing to be martyred for this cause,[20] and advised his followers to write their wills ahead of the march.[21] Hizbullah, for its part, conveyed to Al-Asir through security elements that holding this protest would be crossing a "red line"[22] and that "he must not come near the buildings, because they are full of weapons and he may [find himself] up to his knees in blood."[23] At the same time, Hizbullah apparently convinced Parliament Speaker and Amal party head Nabih Beri to convene the Higher Defense Council so it would forbid Al-Asir and his men to approach the buildings.[24] The council indeed instructed the security apparatuses and the army to set up roadblocks around Al-Asir's mosque to keep him from marching on the Hizbullah posts.[25]

The recent escalation in Sunni-Shi'ite tension was also manifest in mutual kidnappings. For example, on March 24, 2013, two Sunnis from 'Arsal (in eastern Lebanon) kidnapped a Shi'ite from the Al-Ja'far clan, and the clan responded by kidnapping several Sunnis from 'Arsal.[26] This incident ended after the ransom was paid to the Sunni Al-Ja'far kidnappers, the lion's share of which was paid by Saudi businessman Al-Walid bin Tallal.[27] In addition, in early April, an unknown person attempted to assassinate Salem Al-Rafa'i, a prominent Salafi sheikh from Tripoli. According to Al-Rafa'i, this was the third time an attempt on his life had been made, and all the attacks were motivated by his support of the Syrian uprising.[28] The sheikh's supporters wrote on his Facebook page that any attack on him was a declaration of war that would be met with a ruthless armed response. [29]

Fearing Sectarian War, Hizbullah Warns Al-Asir

Hizbullah, like Iran, prefers not to be associated with sectarianism, and therefore tries to present itself as an Islamic organization looking out for Lebanon's interests. Aware of the deterioration of its public and political status in the country, and of the growing power of the Salafi stream, the organization does not want a direct confrontation with the Sunnis right now. Moreover, Hizbullah is busy fighting alongside the Syrian regime, and is not interested in opening up a new front. It also fears that, after the end of the war in Syria, Salafi and Islamist forces that are currently fighting in the ranks of the Syrian opposition will bleed into Lebanon and team up with local Salafis and Islamists who oppose Hizbullah. Apparently for all these reasons, Hizbullah is trying to avoid an intense confrontation with Al-Asir, and is responding to the latter's belligerence with relatively mild statements, stressing that it has no wish for civil war. For example, MP 'Ali Fayyad of Hizbullah said, "We will not be dragged into sectarianism… [The resistance] is making an effort to retain its position of defending the ummah and the homeland."[30]

Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah took a similar tack in a speech he delivered on February 27, saying: "A Sunni-Shi'ite civil war is not in Lebanon's interests. Any sectarian fighting or civil war is dangerous and forbidden, by any standards... We refuse to respond to curses... [and] we have forbidden our people to respond to curses, since this could lead to civil war." At the same time, he warned Al-Asir (without explicitly mentioning his name): "Nobody should miscalculate in his dealing with us... Some Sunni MPs and sheikhs are heading towards a very dangerous escalation. If they translate their statements into actions, we will consider how to deal with this."[31] Another threat was made in the daily Al-Akhbar in an article by the head of the daily's board of directors, Ibrahim Al-Amin, who said that, if any internal elements were thinking of harming Hizbullah out of an estimation that the organization could not respond properly due to its involvement in Syria, they should know that Hizbullah's response "to any mistake by an internal [element] would be more severe than [its response towards] the Israeli enemy."[32]

Hizbullah Enlists It Salafi Allies To Oppose Al-Asir

As part of its efforts to avoid a direct confrontation with Al-Asir and his followers, Hizbullah also enlisted the help of sympathetic Sunni organizations, letting them confront Al-Asir in its stead. One of these is a grassroots Nasserist organization in Sidon headed by Sunni politician Osama Sa'd. On February 26, 2013, Al-Sa'd attacked Al-Asir, saying: "We will not allow Sidon to become a closed sectarian compound... We will thwart all calls to extremism."[33] This organization also held a protest in Sidon against Al-Asir's plans to demonstrate in front of the Hizbullah buildings.[34] Another ally of Hizbullah in Sidon is the imam of the Al-Quds mosque, Sunni sheikh Maher Hamoud, who, in a February 2013 press conference, gave Al-Asir "a final piece of advice" – namely to refrain from abetting the American and Israeli plans to spark civil war in Lebanon.[35] The Salafi sheikhs of the "Lebanese Salafi Gathering" (a group of pro-Hizbullah Salafis in the north) issued a communiqué in which they implicitly accused Al-Asir of representing a "distorted" kind of Salafism manifest in incitement, extremism and fatwas that accuse others of heresy without any religious grounds.[36]

This situation, where Hizbullah enlists its Salafi allies to attack Al-Asir and other Salafis who oppose it, is creating deep tensions within the Salafi camp itself. On March 20, 2013, the Al-Akhbar daily reported that, in one of his religious lectures, Sheikh Al-Rafa'i had told his followers to "prepare for a great and imminent battle [against] enemies [even] more dangerous than Amal and Hizbullah… namely Sunnis who are conspiring against us and against the state... These enemies are giving Hizbullah and Amal control over Sunni areas... If this battle begins, we will not retaliate against Jabal Muhsin [the 'Alawite stronghold in Lebanon] or against Hizbullah and Amal – but rather against those who call themselves Sunni sheikhs and are betraying Allah and His Messenger."[37] On April 8, 2013, Al-Akhbar reported on a meeting between an Al-Qaeda delegation and Salafi-jihadi sheikhs from Lebanese refugee camps and from other parts of Lebanon, at which participants had discussed the elimination of pro-Hizbullah Salafis, especially Sheikh Maher Hamoud, imam of the Al-Quds mosque in Sidon.[38]

Salafis Accuse Lebanese Military Of Working For Hizbullah, Syria, And Iran

A significant development in the escalating struggle between Al-Asir and the Salafis and Hizbullah is the fact that the Lebanese military and security mechanisms have become involved in this conflict in recent months. Some Salafis have been long accusing the military, and mainly the intelligence, of inclining towards the March 8 Forces, and specifically Hizbullah. Some have even called to avoid enlisting in the military and to protest against it, and have leveled harsh accusations at it, claiming that it operates against Sunnis and follows orders from Hizbullah and the Syrian and Iranian regimes. This tension reached its peak when the founder of the Salafi stream in Lebanon, Sheikh Da'i Al-Islam Al-Shahhal, threatened to issue fatwas calling for jihad against anyone who targets Sunnis, including the military.[39]

Salafis Declare Jihad In Syria; Hizbullah: Our Fighting In Syria – A National Duty

A factor that has apparently been central in the growing tensions between Hizbullah and the Salafis is the escalating war in Syria, due to each side's support for a different party in this war. This tension recently reached new heights following Syrian army victories over the Free Syrian Army in the campaign for the city of Al-Qusayr in western Syria near the Lebanese border, largely thanks to the participation of many Hizbullah soldiers in the fighting alongside the regime forces.

On April 22, 2013, various sheikhs throughout Lebanon, as well as the Council of Muslim Scholars– which includes the leaders of the Salafi groups in northern Lebanon and is headed by Salafi Sheikh Salem Al-Rafa'i – declared a general mobilization of youths for the sake of their Sunni brethren in Al-Qusayr, similar to Hizbullah's mobilization for their Shi'ite brethren in Syria. These sheikhs also sent an open letter to Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, Parliament Speaker Nabih Beri, and transitional government head Najib Mikati, in which they claimed that the these leaders' "silence in the face of Hizbullah's direct involvement against oppressed Syrians and Lebanese in Al-Qusayr opened Lebanon's doors to sectarian civil war that threatens public peace and coexistence."[40] A few days later, Sheikh Al-Rafa'i called this statement "a declaration of jihad."[41]

Sheikh Ahmad Al-Asir also issued a fatwa requiring "anyone who can, especially those in Lebanon, to carry out jihad in Syria, specifically in Al-Qusayr."[42] In a press conference, Al-Asir declared the establishment of military brigades named "The Free Lebanese Resistance Brigades" that would join the fight in Syria. In addition, he declared the establishment of secret armed self-defense groups in Lebanon in case Hizbullah decides to fight the Salafis in the country.[43] The daily Al-Akhbar reported that text messages were sent to cell phones in Tripoli calling every Sunni in Lebanon to take up arms and target any Hizbullah activist.[44]

For now, it seems that these fatwas calling for jihad have not deterred Hizbullah, despite its fears of sectarian war. In fact, on the same day that the Salafi sheikhs called for jihad, the head of Hizbullah's Executive Council, Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, said that Hizbullah's participation in the fighting in Syria was "a national duty" and that Hizbullah soldiers killed in Syria were "martyrs of the homeland."[45] In a speech on April 30, 2013, Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said: "We will not abandon the Lebanese living in the rural areas of Al-Qusayr [and will not] expose them to attacks by the armed groups [of the Syrian opposition]."[46]

These calls by Salafis for jihad in Syria are the opening shot in a Sunni-Shi'ite inter-sectarian Lebanese war on Syrian soil. This war could spill over into Lebanon itself, which is something both political rivals in the country – Al-Mustaqbal and Hizbullah – as well as the regional powers that support them – Saudi Arabia and Iran – want to prevent.[47]

It seems that the fighting in Syria and the situation on the battlefield there currently have a direct influence over the situation in Lebanon and the tension between the sides, despite all Saudi Arabia's efforts in the last month to alleviate these tensions and prevent Lebanon from sliding into sectarian war and violence.

* E. B. Picali is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] Al-Watan (Syria), February 28, 2013.

[2] Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 28, 2013.

[3] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), March 15, 2013.

[4] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 4, 2013.

[5] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), April 2, 2013. On April 3, 2013, the daily Al-Mustaqbal, which is owned by Sa'd Al-Hariri, quoted knowledgeable sources who expressed fear that Hizbullah was intending to repeat the events of May 7, 2008. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 4, 2013. (On May 7, 2008, Hizbullah sparked violent riots throughout the country, took over institutions, attacked communications systems, and besieged public facilities and the homes of anti-Syrian officials).

[6] On this topic, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 967 With Increase Of Sunni-Shi'ite Tension In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia Renews Involvement In Country, May 9, 2013.

[7] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), March 19, 2013.

[8] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), March 19, 2013.

[9] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 861, Decline In Hizbullah's Status In Lebanon, July 25, 2012.

[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 27, 2013.

[11] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 27, 2013.

[12] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 11, 2013.

[13] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 25, 2013.

[14] Al-Safir (Lebanon), March 15, 2013.

[15] Al-Safir (Lebanon), March 9, 2013.

[16] The conflict broke out following a poster-war between the two sides, in which Hizbullah put up posters bearing slogans like "martyrdom is eternal power", and Al-Asir, in response, put up posters claiming that these slogans referred to Hizbullah fighters who had been killed in Syria and that they were meant to provoke him and his followers (lbcgroup.tv/News.aspx, November 12, 2012; Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), March 12, 2012.

[17] Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 12, 2013; Al-Nahar (Lebanon), February 10, 2013; Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 22, 2013;Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), March 1, 2013.

[18] Al-Anba (Kuwait), November 14, 2012.

[19] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 20, 21, 2013.

[20] Al-Liwa (Lebanon), March 1, 2013.

[21] Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 26, 2013.

[22] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 28, 2013.

[23] Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 22, 2013.

[24] Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 27, 2013.

[25] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), March 1, 2013.

[26] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 25, 2013.

[27] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), April 14, 2013. This gesture can be seen as an expression of the Saudi involvement in Lebanon in an attempt to alleviate tension in the country. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 967 With Increase Of Sunni-Shi'ite Tension In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia Renews Involvement In Country, May 9, 2013.

[28] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 3, 2013.

[29] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 4, 2013.

[30] Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 26, 2013.

[31] Al-Safir, Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 28, 2013.

[32] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 29, 2013.

[33] Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 27, 2013.

[34] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 21, 2013.

[35] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), March 1, 2013. See also other statements by the sheikh in Al-Nahar (Lebanon), March 4, 2013.

[36] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 15, 2013.

[37] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 20, 2013.

[38] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 8, 2013.

[39] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), March 2, 2013.

[40] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 23, 2013.

[41] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 27, 2013.

[42] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 23, 2013.

[43] Al-Akhbar; Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 23, 2013.

[44] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 23, 2013.

[45] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 23, 2013.

[46] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 1, 2013.

[47] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 967 With Increase Of Sunni-Shi'ite Tension In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia Renews Involvement In Country, May 9, 2013

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