Friday, March 15, 2013

The Assir headache

Is there a more troubling figure than Ahmad al-Assir? The Salafist sheikh is like a protester, who, merely touched by a policeman, will scream that he is being murdered, all to attract attention. For a year and a half Assir has engineered confrontations to rally to his side a Sunni community angry with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.

It is a testament to the disarray in the community – thanks largely to the two-year vacuum left by the head of the Future Movement, Saad Hariri – that there are Sunnis pinning their hopes on a sectarian demagogue. In that sense, Assir is not so different than Hezbollah, even if the party’s ability to control its followers is more reassuring.

Assir’s latest crusade is against the Lebanese Army, which the sheikh has accused of surrounding the Bilal bin Rabah mosque that he controls in Abra. Much can be said of the army, but Assir’s repeated street demonstrations against Hezbollah and the Shiites in Sidon have hardly endeared him to an institution committed to maintaining civil peace. Assir has put his fingers in the wound of confessional relations, and many now fear a perilous deterioration in Sunni-Shiite relations.

The problem is that Assir raises what many consider real problems. When he says that Hezbollah is placing its men in apartments around his mosque, he only plays up to a long-standing perception that the party uses property politics to advance its agenda.

Already, quarters around the southern suburbs that once had a Christian majority now have a Shiite majority thanks to Hezbollah’s purported efforts to build buildings and settle families there. In the Beqaa, there have been accusations that Hezbollah militants have rented apartments in Shtaura and its environs, to be able to link the Shiite-majority southern region of the plain with the northern region, if Sunnis ever block the central region in a potential conflict.

Are the accusations true? Maybe yes, maybe no, but few Sunnis are willing to give Hezbollah the benefit of the doubt because of the party’s actions in the past eight years. Hezbollah members stand accused of participating in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, and there has been considerable suspicion as to the party’s role in subsequent killings. In May 2008, Hezbollah militants overran west Beirut and humiliated the Sunnis. And in early 2011, the party precipitated the ouster of Hariri, the principal Sunni representative, and brought in Najib Miqati. All this was against the will of the Sunni community.

The results created dry grassland for Assir’s flames. And yet his provocations have targeted not only Shiites. His decision to take a busload of followers to Faraya on the feast of the birth of the Prophet was equally contentious. Assir is entitled to go anywhere he wants in Lebanon, but he knew well that the presence of long-bearded Salafists in the Christian heartland would spark a counter-reaction (no less so than would Samir Geagea’s taking a busload of Lebanese Forces members to Abra). Assir also knew this counter-reaction would be led by Michel Aoun’s partisans. He manufactured a stand-off that he won (thanks to the army he is now attacking), and pranced triumphantly in the snow, proving that he was not a man who could be intimidated.

The big question is who is financing Assir? Some have suggested that he has Qatari funding, which the sheikh has denied. Unfortunately, denials don’t mean much in cases like this one, where funders will insist on anonymity. Wherever Assir gets his money from, and Salafists tend to look toward the Gulf for financial assistance, those helping the sheikh are only ensuring that Lebanon becomes more polarized than ever, with possibly disastrous consequences.

Yet the sheikh has more than just bluster and money; he also benefits from the presence in Sidon of the Palestinian camp at Ain al-Hilweh, where Salafist groups are strong. If Hezbollah were to enter into an armed confrontation with Assir, it would have to factor these Salafists into its plans as well. The party has no desire to be dragged into a fight with armed Palestinians on the main road to the south.

Ultimately, what is Assir’s program? He does not enjoy unanimous support, even in Sidon, and no matter how deep Sunni anger with Hezbollah and revulsion with Bashar al-Assad’s regime, his brinkmanship is alarming to those who fear a mad drive toward sectarian warfare. While Lebanon’s Salafists are less influential than many believe, it does not take much to spark a conflict. And once that happens, it is easy for the situation to spiral out of control.

Some will argue that Assir and Hezbollah are mirror images of each other. Therefore why blame one side and not the other? Hezbollah’s many errors in recent years have, more than anything else, pushed Lebanon to the edge of the abyss. Yet Assir is dangerous in a different way. He is still in the ascendant in a community where the political leadership has left a void. That is why Assir is far more likely to be reckless, and to drag Lebanon down with him, a victim of his hubris.

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