My latest for VICE UK on Lebanon, Sidon and Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir.
A man surveys the wreckage of fighting in Sidon. Photo by Sam Tarling.
Relatively speaking, Lebanon is a madhouse. In the West, we’re used to being bombarded with images of Kanye West and David Beckham, but in Lebanon the hero-worship is mostly reserved for politicians, clerics and warlords. It seems like every other street corner is fly-postered with the giant grinning heads of political movers, shakers and agitators past and present, not letting death obstruct their view of the daily insanity that is Lebanese life.
In the last two days, fighting has taken place in the southern city and Sunni stronghold of Sidon. Over 40 people have lost their lives in clashes between Sunnis loyal to hardline Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir and the interdenominational Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). This latest outburst of violence began on Sunday evening, when it was reported that one of Assir’s bodyguards and aides had been arrested by the LAF. In response to this, Assir ordered his men to launch an attack on an army outpost, killing six soldiers and wounding a dozen more, before holing up in his compound and vowing to “stay in the mosque until the last drop of blood”.
To make things even more insane than a popular cleric starting a death or glory battle with the armed forces, popular Lebanese singer Fadel Shaker also decided to get in on the action. Shaker boasted online about having killed two “pig” soldiers, which is the equivalent of George Michael waking up one morning and informing his Twitter followers that he’d spent the previous evening going nuts with a gun at Scotland Yard.
By the end of Monday night, Assir’s mosque was in smouldering ruins. Both he and Shaker are said to have escaped, but 16 soldiers and over 25 militants lay dead and Lebanon’s tense intersect relations are more fraught than ever. On top of this, 94 wounded were rushed to local hospitals and many civilians had been trapped in their houses for days as they sheltered from the violence. Assir and Shaker, their tails between their legs, have most likely sought refuge with the FSA in Syria. If you have to choose the most dangerous country in the world as a hiding place, the future probably isn’t looking too bright for you.
Lebanese singer Fadel Shaker brags about killing two Lebanese soldiers.
Assir’s main contention is that the LAF, though harbouring all religious sects within its ranks, is terrorising Sunnis alongside Hezbollah, the Shia political militant group who have a stranglehold on Lebanon. Assir’s fears are shared by many of the country’s large Sunni population and haven’t exactly been alleviated by reports that the LAF and Hezbollah joined forces in this week’s fight for Sidon. Meanwhile, the situation has been exacertbated by the civil war in neighbouring Syria. There, the majority Sunni population is engaged in a civil war with the forces of widely despised leader Bashar al-Assad – forces that include fighters from Hezbollah. The region as a whole is slowly dividing itself along sectarian lines.
While this resentment is likely to linger, for Assir, it is now essentially game over. His drastic and extraordinary decision to attack the military has not only cost him the support of Sunni moderates but has also placed a price and arrest warrant on his head that no kind of YouTube-based PR drive will be able to shake off.
To understand how Assir rose to the kind of position from which a man feels comfortable ordering an attack on his country’s army, you also have to understand Hezbollah’s rise to power. In 2008, they forced the collapse of the Lebanese government and they still face allegations from a UN-backed court that, three years prior to that, they assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Since then, Iranian and Syrian influences have come to dominate and dictate domestic affairs and Lebanon’s de facto leader – the assassinated Prime Minister’s son, Saad Hariri – remains in hiding after (you guessed it) another failed assassination attempt.
All the while, Lebanon’s Sunni population have been forced to look on, feeling increasingly marginalised. As the Shia Muslims of Hezbollah run the show, Assir has set up himself up as a highly visible champion of the Sunni cause.
Sunni Cleric Ahmad al-Assir lashes out at the Lebanese Armed Forces.
Assir has taken advantage of a Sunni power vacuum in Lebanon. All moderates tend to be pushed to the sides by extremists like him, whose popularity – until they decide to instruct personal militias to attack the army – is allowed to grow to the detriment of the middle ground. Assir started his rise from small-time cleric to media sweetheart and wannabe warlord two years ago, luring in frustrated Sunnis with protests and fiery rhetoric aimed squarely at Hezbollah and the Syrian regime they’re currently helping to prop up. His attack on the military has shocked and appalled many people within Lebanon, even those who agree with his positions on Hezbollah and Syria. However, Assir also has a large amount of support from hardline Sunnis who see him as a political counter-weight to Hezbollah.
Assir is a clown and the Lebanese media was his circus, and any legitimate concerns he may have had about Hezbollah or Syria have now been blown out of the water. The man will now probably not see Lebanese soil again for many years to come. The worrying thing is how quickly Assir grew in popularity among Lebanese moderates who, despite his vehement fundamentalism and propensity for violence, often referred to him as “cute”, “funny” or “harmless”, like he was some sort of insane Wahabi Boris Johnson.
But if Assir is the clown, then Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is its ringmaster. With Sunni/Shi’ite relations at an all-time low across the world, Lebanon is at risk of all-out civil war, with pockets of violence frequently flaring up in Sidon, Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley. And while Assir is right about the true nature of Hezbollah and their poisonous effect on Lebanon, installing him in their place would just be replacing one group of crazy, bearded Islamists with guns with another group of crazy, bearded Islamists with guns.
Lebanon needs to take a step back from the brink – it may not have the capacity to recover from another long and brutal civil war. Disarming militias and national unity should be a national priority – instead, however, all we’ve seen for years is more bloodshed.