Will the civil war in Syria incite a Sunni-Shiite holy war in Lebanon?
BEIRUT — It always starts with the posters. On Nov. 11, followers of the Sunni Salafist leader Ahmed al-Assir tore down a poster of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in the southern Lebanese city of Saida. The destruction of the sign -- the traditional way for parties to mark their territory in Lebanon -- provoked a sadly predictable response: A shootout erupted in the neighborhood, claiming the lives of three people, including two of Assir's bodyguards, and wounding a Hezbollah official.
In the clash's aftermath, Assir mulled forming a militia himself -- but soon suspended the formation of his "resistance brigade" after a public outcry. Tensions, nevertheless, remain high: On Nov. 19, a Lebanese judge issued search warrants against 24 gunmen seen at the funeral of Assir's bodyguard. The question seems to be when, not if, the conflict flares up again.
The Oct. 19 assassination of Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, the country's most powerful Sunni intelligence chief and a staunch opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, spurred this recent bout of instability. Angry anti-Assad groups took to the streets after Hassan's death, accusing Syria and Hezbollah of the crime and calling for the downfall of the government in Beirut. But there was a twist: In a departure from their normal political leanings, Lebanon's Sunni protesters had taken on a distinctly Islamist hue.
In the hours following Hassan's assassination, Sunni Islamist militias deployed in the streets of the northern port city of Tripoli and in central Beirut, taking the fight not just to rival groups but also toward Lebanese Army patrols. In all, at least six people were killed and 27 wounded over one mad weekend.
A Lebanese security source, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, told Foreign Policy that militant jihadist groups across the country had increased activities significantly in the past 20 months.
"The current situation gives these groups a safe haven to operate, mainly inside the [Palestinian] camps," the source said. "Their modus operandi is ambushes and attack. These are guys who have been to Afghanistan or Iraq and there is no doubt that they are joining [the fighting] in Syria at the moment."
Assir has been the public face of this newfound religiosity among Lebanon's Sunni community. The firebrand cleric, whose day job is as imam at Saida's Bilal bin Rabah mosque, shot to prominence this summer as the most vocal opponent of Assad's dominance in Syria, and Hezbollah's dominance in Lebanon.
"The Sunnis remain dominated by [Hezbollah] and its weapons. We are vulnerable in particular," he told Foreign Policy at his office in Sidon. "If this continues, there will not be a war in Lebanon. There will be an attack on the Sunnis and they will not last one day."
Assir sees the Syrian regime and Hezbollah as working to advance Shiite domination of the region, and warns that Lebanon's Sunnis will be at risk as long as Assad lives. "Most people in the region are Sunni and refuse the Iranian project [of keeping Assad in power]," Assir says. "In [Lebanon], the Sunnis have been disappointed by successive governments. There is a glitch here and all parties need to be aware of it."
The rise of Assir -- and many more like him -- has been made possible by the prolonged absence of former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who had previously been the undisputed leader of Lebanon's Sunni community. But after Hariri lost the premiership in June 2011, he departed the country for Paris amid rumours of money troubles and concerns for his safety, and has yet to return. As one Sunni fighter explained lamely when asked what connection his community has with its former standard-bearer, "he communicates with us over Twitter."
With Hariri gone, pro-Assad sources have accused countries sympathetic to the Syrian revolt of using Lebanese jihadist groups for their own purposes. As one high-ranking Lebanese Shiite political source termed it, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar "insist on continuing to send fighters and snipers through Lebanon" and into Syria.
The State Department currently lists seven officially designated terrorist groups as operational inside Lebanon. One is the Shiite militant organization Hezbollah, but most are radicalized Sunni groups with alleged links to al Qaeda.
Their operations over recent years have been limited to smash-and-grab attacks. They were accused, for example, of being behind the roadside bombings in 2011 that targeted U.N. peacekeeping patrols in south Lebanon.
But now, emboldened by the outbreak of violence in Syria, several groups appear to be expanding their operations. Lebanon's tenuous security situation, not to mention its virtually non-existent border with Syria, allow the groups to launch jihadist operations against Assad - and also threaten his supporters closer to home.
Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, estimates there are currently at least 600 Lebanese fighting alongside rebel groups inside Syria. And he warns this will eventually boomerang back on Lebanon.
"We have seen this before with conflicts in the past -- which are termed jihad -- that when fighters in other countries come home it leads to destabilization," Zelin said. "And Syria is the most popular jihadist conflict in a while."
Sunni animosity toward the Assad regime, which is dominated by the minority Alawite sect, has deep roots. Under former President Hafez al-Assad, Syria extended its military hegemony over Lebanon and implemented an unrelenting crackdown on Lebanon's Islamists.
In Tripoli, the suppression was particularly fearsome. Islamist groups both aligned and non-aligned to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood were routinely rounded up by security personnel and arbitrarily imprisoned, or worse.
Ahmed Qasas, a senior member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a global Islamist organization that was banned from operating for decades in Lebanon, was one of the thousands to spend time in jail at former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's leisure. "We were followed constantly," he told Foreign Policy at the party's Tripoli headquarters. "Most of the party's youth were put in jail. We were the most targeted by the mukhabarat [Syrian secret police]."
Hizb ut-Tahrir -- which boasts more than one million members worldwide and seeks the establishment of a global Islamic state -- has been a mainstay of public demonstrations calling for Assad's departure, flouting a ban on its gatherings with ever-increasing numbers. And politically, the party has been invigorated by the regional gains made by Islamist organizations in the wake of the Arab Spring.
"There has been more acceptance of the culture of Hizb ut-Tahrir across the region," Qasas says. "People for the first time are seriously looking for a political project and we believe that there is no project capable of change apart from ours."
Qasas is at pains to point out that Hizb ut-Tahrir does not advocate violence. At the same time, he wholeheartedly supports the Syrian rebellion against Assad: "The Syrian people have had to take up arms after the regime attacked them," he says.
Lebanon's political establishment has largely eschewed descriptions of the Syrian conflict as a struggle between Sunnis and Shiites. Those sympathetic to the revolt depict it as a people's struggle for freedom, while those opposed paint it as a sovereign administration fighting off foreign terrorist intervention. However, in the absence of a cohesive political opposition to Assad, less orthodox figures like Assir have filled the political vacuum by presenting events as an epoch-defining showdown between rival Muslim sects.
Assir, for his part, blames the international community's inaction for the presence of al Qaeda-inspired groups in Lebanon, and maintains that he would support any group -- no matter how extremist -- that struggles against the government in Damascus.
"In battle -- in history -- there is no clean kill," the firebrand cleric says. "You always have inappropriate things that happen that people don't agree with. I want to see Bashar killed in battle."