Syria Conflict Exacerbates Communal Tension in Lebanon

The conflict in Syria has exacerbated traditional communal tensions in Lebanon, with violent clashes becoming increasingly widespread in parts of the country. Sectarian polarization has fueled Sunni mobilization and allowed radical figures like Salafist Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir to gain popularity among a disenfranchised, increasingly militant Sunni community. His armed wing has received reinforcement from Syrian and foreign fighters.  With Hezbollah increasingly viewed as an overtly sectarian militia due to the organization’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, the Lebanese Armed Forces have an opportunity to assert their independence and act as a neutral, capable national security force.  

Recent clashes between Shi‘a and Sunni groups in Tripoli and Sidon, Lebanon came to a head in late June 2013 when a group of militants loyal to Salafist cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir attacked a Lebanese army checkpoint in the area of Abra. Abra is a stronghold of Assir and the location of the mosque from which he leads his Salafist movement.  During the attack, two Lebanese army officers and 14 soldiers were killed in some of the deadliest fighting Sidon has witnessed since 2008. Fueled by the events in Syria, such clashes reveal the extent to which the Syrian conflict has aggravated Lebanon’s own complex sectarian dynamics. Unlike Syria, where mixed communities have successfully cohabitated for years, Lebanon has struggled to maintain a delicate sectarian balance. This balance is increasingly threatened, and many fear that Lebanon could be headed back into the type of conflict that ripped the country apart during its 15 year civil war.

Although armed clashes have occurred sporadically in Lebanon since the outbreak of the uprising in Syria, violence has been relatively low despite increasingly hostile relations between Lebanon’s Shi‘a and Sunni communities. Hezbollah’s overt involvement in operations within Syria, however, has exacerbated sectarian divisions and fueled an increasingly militant response. In mid June, four Shi‘a men were killed in an ambush by Sunni militants in Arsal in the Bekaa Valley, a Hezbollah stronghold. When news broke of the killings, armed gunmen took to the streets in neighboring towns, including Labweh, in order to avenge the blood of their Shi‘a brethren whom they believed had been killed by Syrian rebels. Following the fall of al-Qusayr in early June, there was a large influx of Syrian rebels into the Bekaa region. This arrival of opposition forces, coupled with frequent rocket attacks into the area from rebel-held areas in Syria, has led to frequent clashes between pro-opposition and pro-Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.  In response, the Lebanese army deployed troops to the area and attempted to create a buffer zone between some of the rival villages.[1]  

As incidents such as these increase, it is important to note some of the differences between clashes observed previously and the more recent violence.  Much of the earlier violence in 2011 and through the summer of 2012 was a result of the indirect effects of the Syria conflict on traditional rivalries, while the majority of recent clashes are the direct result of the spillover of violence from Syria. For example, the violent clashes in the area outside of Tripoli between the Shi‘a in Jabal Mohsen and the Sunnis in Bab al-Tabbaneh during the summer of 2012 were not a direct result of spillover from Syria, but instead resulted from traditional sectarian tensions between the two groups that were inflamed by the Syrian conflict.[2] Other violence in Lebanon, including the waves of kidnappings that occurred during the same time period, also reflected traditional tension inflamed by events in Syria.[3]

On the other hand, the clashes in Tripoli that broke out in December 2012 when several pro-opposition Lebanese men were assassinated, presumably by Assad forces, directly resulted from the spillover from Syria, as those killed had actively been fighting in Syria on behalf of the opposition.[4] This sparked a wave of fighting that left nearly 20 people dead and more than 100 wounded.[5] Salafist Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir was at the heart of these clashes. Earlier in March 2012, al-Assir organized a large anti-Assad march in Beirut during which he called on his supporters to take to the streets to support the Syrian opposition in its fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.[6] Although this early protest was peaceful, similar demonstrations that occurred later in the summer of 2012 resulted in violence, and the actions of his followers became increasingly militant. By November, reports indicated that al-Assir was forming a military wing and actively arming his followers with weapons he had previously said should only be in the hands of state security forces.[7] More than once since that time, Assir’s followers have perpetrated violence in Sidon and its surrounding areas.

On June 23, 2013 deadly clashes broke out in the city of Sidon, Lebanon, between gunmen loyal to al-Assir and Lebanese security forces in the worst fighting the city has seen since 2008. The two-day battle was triggered when supporters of al-Assir attacked an army checkpoint after soldiers reportedly seized a couple of their comrades. Late Monday night, Lebanese army troops had regained control of the complex and arrested dozens of Assir’s supporters.[8]  By the end of the fighting, sixteen Lebanese troops were killed, along with a number of gunmen. The Lebanese army arrested 210 people following the clashes in Sidon; of this figure only 62 were Lebanese, 87 were Syrian, and the remainder were a mix of foreign nationalities. The number of foreign fighters corroborates reports that Jabhat al-Nusra had recently sent a number of men to join al-Assir in recent weeks in order to train and provide expertise to the poorly-organized and undertrained ranks of Assir’s followers.[9] This suggests that recent fighting is not only indicative of domestic instability caused by local Sunni versus Shi‘a tension, but is part of the larger transnational threat posed by the influx of foreign fighters to the region as a result of the conflict in Syria.  

Although a number of important Sunni religious figures said that they supported the army’s operation against al-Assir and called on the army to work “fairly and thoroughly” to disarm all armed groups in Lebanon, including Hezbollah, mainstream political leaders appeared unwilling to rein in the cleric or address his followers’ concerns prior to the clashes. The Mustaqbal, or Future, party has especially proven unable to provide leadership to Lebanon’s Sunni community, and have been powerless to stop the fighting as the conflict in the name of al-Assir has continued. On June 28, clashes again broke out when the Lebanese army attempted to prevent a group from reaching Assir’s headquarters in Sidon. Shortly afterwards, security forces closed a number of roads in an attempt to prevent protestors from reaching Abra Mosque. Protests also erupted in Tripoli, when a group of Assir’s supporters removed a poster of MP Saad Hariri and replaced it with a photo of al-Assir.[10] At this time, tensions remain high, and clashes are likely to continue.     

Although such incidences are indicative of a growing sectarian sentiment, it is important to recognize the political context in which such clashes occur and gain prominence. Domestically, many Sunni religious leaders and politicians are using the situation in Syria to secure new political and social power.  Socioeconomic shifts in Lebanon have meant that Lebanon’s Sunni community has faced the country’s highest poverty rates. Illiteracy rates, unemployment, and the absence of state aid and support have led to an increasing sense of collective marginalization of the Sunni community. This situation, combined with the weakness of mainstream Sunni Lebanese political forces, has helped fuel the appeal of radicalism and facilitated efforts by radical leaders to recruit fighters. There has been a clear shift in support from mainstream politicians to either religious authorities usually found on the fringes of society or street leaders who can offer physical protection in the absence of state security institutions. This trend is likely to fuel further hostility and lead to an increasing willingness of many within the Sunni community in Lebanon to engage in armed violence.

Coinciding with the mobilization of the Sunni population in Lebanon, Hezbollah itself is undergoing a profound, and arguably existential, change. The group is increasingly engaged in activities that have little to do with resisting Israel. The fact that Hezbollah is expending considerable energy and resources to fight against its Arab brethren in Syria has left many questioning the ideological underpinnings that once defined Hezbollah as an organization even within its own ranks.  To that end, Hezbollah has been exposed as an overtly sectarian militia. Although this has not significantly affected its domestic Shi‘a support, it has threatened Hezbollah’s alliances with the Lebanese Christian community. A senior member of the Free Patriotic Movement, an important Christian-led party, recently criticized their political ally Hezbollah and openly questioned whether their alliance may “bring about a disaster for Lebanon.”[11] Maintaining its Christian allies is an important part of Hezbollah’s ability to uphold its political dominance, and the organization will need to maintain the alliance as Sunni mobilize. Outside of Lebanon, Hezbollah has loss much of its legitimacy in the Arab world. Moreover, Shi‘a Lebanese communities in other areas in the region are now being threatened as a result of suspected pro-Hezbollah sympathies. Expatriates in the Gulf now fear indiscriminate deportations, as the Gulf Cooperation Council recently warned that it will take measures against suspected members of Hezbollah living in their countries.[12]

That Hezbollah is now largely recognized as a sectarian militia does create some space within Lebanon for a more neutral state security force. Prior to the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah was seen as a necessary component of Lebanon’s internal and external security apparatuses by both the Shi‘a community as well as many from the Sunni community because of the organization’s efforts against Israel. As this perception changes, it begs the question of whether or not the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) will be able to fill that role and serve as a more neutral national security force.  Whether or not the Lebanese army will be able to take decisive action against Assir’s followers and others in the future remains to be seen.  This could be an important opportunity for LAF to assert itself and pull out from under the shadow of Hezbollah’s military dominance, especially if LAF is able to remain above the fray of sectarian dimensions.

Although recent clashes have exacerbated traditional communal tensions and helped fuel sectarian polarization, events on the ground reveal a more nuanced and complex reality. Certain elements of the Shi‘a community in Lebanon have demonstrated against Hezbollah’s entry into the Syrian conflict. In one of the larger demonstrations that was organized by Ahmed al-Asaad’s Lebanese Option movement in front of the Iranian embassy, a man was shot and killed.[13] Other Shi‘a figures have also become more vocal in their condemnation of Hezbollah, and some have even openly supported the Syrian opposition. Such incidents illustrate the complexities that exist within these communities, and which are often lost in discussions of sectarianism.

Understanding the strategic interests and political calculations that lay behind seemingly sectarian-motivated actions is important to prevent the tearing apart of the longstanding social fabric in both Lebanon and Syria, and the region as a whole.  Shi‘a support for the Alawi is based primarily on politics, rather than religion, and it is coupled with a fear that a Sunni-led government in Damascus would be a threat to all Shi‘a in the region. In this case, Shi‘a support should be seen as a response to the mobilization of the Sunni population that was spurred on by the establishment of Sunni-dominated governments in Tunisia and Egypt following their respective uprisings.  In addition to general Shi‘a support, Hezbollah’s direct support for the Assad regime also has much more to do with the party’s strategic interests than with a religious affinity to the Alawi community. Not only is their involvement directly a result of their financial dependency on Iran, but they are also fighting to ensure open lines of communication and to prevent the disruption of their supply chains.

Analyzing events sharply along sectarian lines has the effect of playing up sectarian dimensions while downplaying the equally important political rationale underling it. Once the sectarian dimensions gain the upper hand in popular understanding, communal responses become likewise sectarian in nature. As a result, identity politics become the dominant trope through which the struggle for power on both a local and national level is carried out. Consequently, moderate leaders have difficulty remaining politically pragmatic, and radical figures are able to gain widespread popularity despite running counter to the beliefs of the majority of the population. Especially given popular perceptions of outside intervention and the escalation of sectarianism on a regional level, finding avenues for cross-sectarian efforts and activities is becoming increasingly rare. This situation has complicated Lebanon’s ability to make a transition to a less sectarian form of governance. As all sides within the political sphere wrestle for power, they will likely become even more reliant on external actors. To this end, supporting Lebanese institutions, including the Lebanese Armed Forces, is important to undermining the weight and influence of sectarian groups and rhetoric in Lebanon.        

[1] “Lebanese army deploys in tense Bekaa Valley,” Al-Jazeera, June 17, 2013.

[2] “Lebanon clashes: Fresh clashes breach truce in Tripoli,” BBC, August 23, 2012.

[3] Martin Chulov, “Lebanon aghast as return of sectarian kidnappings raises spectre of civil war,” the Guardian, August, 15, 2012.

[4] Nazih Saddiq, “Sunni-Alawi clashes break out in Lebanon’s Tripoli,” Reuters, December 4, 2012.

[5] Bassem Mroue, “3 killed in sectarian clashes in Lebanon,” AP, November 11, 2013.

[6] “Salafi leader holds anti-Assad protest in central Beirut,” Al-Akhbar, March 4, 2012.

[7] Niamh Fleming-Farrell, “The rise and fall of Sheikh Ahmad Assir,” the Daily Star, June 25, 2013.

[8] Jean Aziz, “Sheikh al-Assir’s militants kill Lebanese soldiers in Sidon,” al-Monitor, June 24, 2013.

[9] Mitchell Prothero, “Al Qaida-linked Nusra Front rebels blamed for bloody fight against Lebanese army in Sidon,” McClatchy, June ,25, 2013.

[10] Now Lebanon news tracker, June 28, 2013.

[11] Alex Rowell, “A crack in the Aoun-Hezbollah alliance,” NOW, June 19, 2013.

[12] “Lebanese Shiites fear Gulf expulsions in Hezbollah row,” NOW, June 21, 2013.

[13] Michael Young, “Sectarian suicide,” NOW, June 21, 2013.