The Salafist preacher who declared war on Hezbollah
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Tensions between Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shiites have been rising since Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir (pictured) began publicly threatening Hezbollah’s powerful chief, Hassan Nasrallah, amid mounting fears that Syria’s sectarian woes are gripping Lebanon.
“I swear by Allah that you, Nasrallah, I will not let you sleep at night if you do not decide to behave better with us [Sunnis]. I'll make you pay the price. This has only just begun.”
This threat against Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah was issued a few months ago by Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, a Sunni Salafist imam whose profile has been rising in recent months – attracting the esteem of his supporters and even the grudging respect of some fellow Sunnis who do not endorse Salafism.
But for the Lebanese political establishment struggling to contain a spillover of the Syrian conflict, Assir represents a potent threat to Lebanon’s security.
Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s 52-year-old chief, is sometimes called the “most powerful man” in Lebanon and sometimes “the most dangerous man” - not just in his homeland, but in the wider Middle East region. A few years ago, publicly threatening the Hezbollah chief in such incendiary tones was inconceivable.
But the latest skirmishes between Hezbollah and Assir’s supporters have exposed the dwindling respect for the Shiite movement among Lebanon’s Sunnis as the Syrian civil war threatens to ignite sectarian tensions in neighbouring Lebanon.
Relatively unknown at the start of the year, Assir shot into prominence a few months ago when he openly took on the powerful Shiite movement in the Hezbollah stronghold of Sidon, a city in southern Lebanon.
In an interview in June with the leading Lebanese French-language daily, L'Orient-le-Jour, Assir proclaimed: “I no longer accept the hegemony of an armed group that threatens us, that talks about cutting hands ... and then accuses us of being traitors while attacking our religious leaders and our dignity.”
Deadly clashes over Hezbollah posters
Over the weekend, the growing hostility between Nasrallah and Assir’s supporters turned deadly when a firefight between the Salafist and Shiite groups left three dead and injured seven others.
The spark for the latest dispute was posters glorifying the pro-Iranian Hezbollah movement in and around Sidon.
Assir had issued an ultimatum to Hezbollah’s supporters to remove the posters - a warning that was ignored.
The victims of Sunday’s skirmishes included two of Assir’s bodyguards, according to the local The Daily Star newspaper. Addressing his supporters the next day, Assir said, “The weapons’ party wants to kill us. They killed two of my men. I call on you to take up weapons. But don’t rush or get dragged [into fighting].”
Assir frequently refers to Hezbollah as “the weapons’ party” following the Shiite movement’s refusal to lay down its weapons. It’s a contentious issue in Lebanese political circles since Hezbollah was the only Lebanese faction allowed to keep its weapons after the end of the 1970s civil war. Hezbollah maintains it needs its arms for the resistance against Israel. The group’s arsenal is believed to outweigh that of the Lebanese national military.
Once hailed as a heroic resistance movement against Israel by most Lebanese, Hezbollah’s standing with the Sunni community plummeted by 2008, when Hezbollah militants clashed with Sunni militias on the streets of Beirut. The Shiite movement vanquished its Sunni rivals in a brisk show of strength.
Relations between the two groups have been strained since the Sunni-led uprising in Syria began last year. Most Lebanese Sunnis support the uprising against Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, a member of the minority Shiite Alawite community. The Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement on the other hand supports Assad’s Alawite regime. Last month, sectarian relations in Lebanon nosedived following the October 19 assassination of anti-Syrian former Lebanese intelligence chief, Wissam al-Hassan.
Two sides provoking each other
In his interview with L'Orient-le-Jour, Assir rejected the presence in Sidon “of those who kill our brothers in Syria and just killed Wissam al-Hassan in Beirut.”
Since Sunday’s skirmishes, there has been a heavy Lebanese security presence in the southern city of Sidon, with Assir threatening to block the city’s major thoroughfares.
The growing tensions between Nasrallah and Assir’s supporters have caused alarm in Lebanese political circles, with Interior Minister Marwan Charbel calling on both parties to restore calm.
“They are provoking each other – Hezbollah by stubbornly maintaining their posters and Sheikh al-Assir by going into an area that is a stronghold of the Shiite majority,” said Charbel in an interview with L'Orient-le-Jour.
In a phone interview from Beirut with FRANCE 24, a Lebanese security official who declined to be named said the current situation, if not carefully handled, could spiral out of control.
“Al-Assir’s repeated provocations towards Hezbollah may eventually radicalise people and cause much more serious incidents across the country," he said, noting that the Salafist preacher’s message appeals to Lebanon’s “Sunni street” – which is frustrated and feels marginalised by Hezbollah’s power.
"Even if a majority of Lebanese agreed with him on the need to disarm Hezbollah, his methods are far from desirable because they exacerbate tensions. Fortunately, his supporters are not very numerous and Hezbollah has been patient with him,” said the Lebanese security source.
But in a tinderbox city like Sidon, there are no guarantees that a precarious peace can hold for long. With the Shiite holy day of Ashura - which commemorates the murder of the Prophet’s grandson Imam Hussein - falling on November 24 this year, tensions are expected to rise between Lebanon’s Shiites and Sunnis – especially in Sidon.