Thursday, March 7, 2013

Empowered Salafists risk the peace to challenge Hizbollah

The Lebanese are speaking a great deal about war these days. The conflict in Syria has heightened tensions between the Sunni and the Shia communities, particularly the most militant groups in each. The fear is that events in Syria will lead to fighting between Sunni Salafists and Hizbollah that spares no one. And yet what are the chances of this actually happening?

The dynamics facilitating a war are there, making any assurances that a conflict will never happen sound hollow. On the other hand, the factors dissuading the Lebanese from imminent war are equally strong. The primary worry is not so much that Lebanese society is preparing for war, though the national divisions are worrisome, but rather that small groups will provoke clashes that might escalate.

Of late, attention has been focused on one individual, the Salafist Sheikh Ahmad Assir, in Sidon. Sheikh Assir emerged last year in the predominantly Sunni southern coastal city, which is a front line of sorts abutting the largely Shia areas further to the south. The populist Sheikh Assir's preferred tactic has been to provoke quarrels with Hizbollah to rally supporters to his side. Many Sunnis, after years of humiliation at the hands of Hizbollah, have been receptive to Sheikh Assir's message, whatever their views of the man.

The sheikh's brinkmanship has been disturbing. In recent weeks, for instance, he has accused Hizbollah of placing men in apartments near his Bilal bin Rabah mosque to monitor him. In response, he has organised demonstrations near the apartment buildings, heightening Sunni-Shia ill-feeling. Only the army has prevented violence, although the sheikh's men did clash with Hizbollah some months ago.

The latest demonstrations coincided with a commemoration of the former parliamentarian Maarouf Saad, whose killing in March 1975 is regarded as one of the events that precipitated the civil war of 1975-1990. The irony was lost on nobody, although Mr Saad's son Mustapha, a political ally of Hizbollah despite being Sunni, has condemned Sheikh Assir for threatening communal coexistence in Sidon.

It is unclear from whom Sheikh Assir gets his funding, though the rumour mill suggests it is Qatar. Moreover, he is believed to have good relations with Islamists in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain Al Hilweh in Sidon, which has made him more daring in challenging Hizbollah. Were a conflict to break out between the party and Salafists in the city, Sheikh Assir would probably benefit from the assistance of Salafists in Ain Al Hilweh, who largely control the camp. This would cut the coastal road to the south, and Hizbollah's ability to open the road by force would be considerably impaired.

In the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, several Salafist groups also appear to have gained ground thanks to the fighting in neighbouring Syria. In the past year, there have been regular skirmishes between the Sunni quarter of Bab Al Tebbaneh and the Alawite neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen. This has usually been contained by the security forces, but it has also given greater impetus to armed Salafists.

Sidon and Tripoli tell us much about the likelihood, and lack thereof, of a new war in Lebanon. Young Islamists, spurred by the war in Syria, have pent-up resentment against two of the allies of the Assad regime, Iran and Hizbollah. Moreover, success in the Syrian conflict has come thanks to Salafist-jihadist groups, notably the Al Nusra Front, which this week led the takeover by rebels of the city of Raqqa. Once the war in Syria ends, these groups may conceivably cross the border and, with Lebanese Salafists, take on Hizbollah.

The way the Syrian conflict ends will play a key role in determining whether this scenario is probable. A long, grinding battle, if President Bashar Al Assad falls back on an Alawite heartland, could exacerbate matters in Lebanon, as Hizbollah comes to Mr Al Assad's assistance. Similarly, any post-Assad Syrian civil war could spread to Lebanon. And that is not to mention the serious and growing problem of refugees, who have imported many of the contradictions of Syrian society into Lebanese areas vulnerable to sectarian antagonism.

All this is very troubling, as it is difficult to see how Lebanon might escape the negative aftershocks of the Syrian conflict. Furthermore, the economic situation in the country is poor, which means that the most marginalised may have an incentive to enter into a conflict that, they feel, will allow them to make money as militias did in the past.

But there are also many reasons not to go to war in Lebanon. First, Salafists are not influential in society, and most Salafist groups are not jihadists. They tend to operate religious institutions or schools, allowing them to appeal for funding from wealthy Gulf states, their financial lifeline. This could change as the situation in Syria changes, but Lebanese Sunni society tends to be conservative and careful, and has no incentive to back a war that devastates all of Lebanon.

And then there is Hizbollah. While Salafists believe they can defeat the party, a war would mean carnage. Any attack against Hizbollah would threaten civil peace, prompting the state, particularly the army, to react. Nor should it be forgotten that Hizbollah has financially co-opted some Salafist groups, so Salafists may be divided. Christians, too, would dread a Salafist rise, and many may side with the Shia. Mainstream Sunnis, increasingly isolated, may contest the militants.

And then there is memory. Many Lebanese still remember well the civil war and the terrible destruction it wrought. Few want to go back to that dark time from which Lebanon never completely recovered. This is the most powerful antidote to a new war, but will it be enough? That the Lebanese are asking such a question reflects the mood of profound doubt and anxiety in their country.

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