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Foreign Policy

Sawssan Abou-Zahr: Sectarian Lebanon, Syrian Labyrinth

Sawssan Abou-Zahr is a senior journalist on the foreign desk of an-Nahar, a leading Lebanese daily. She writes on Afghanistan, Iran, and the Arab Spring. Follow Sawssan on Twitter.

It was supposed to be an ordinary Sunday afternoon. I had been visiting my father at Abra, a suburb of Sidon, my home town and the chief city in southern Lebanon. When we heard gunshots, we at first dismissed them as the kind of lower level violence we had lately grown all too used to.

A few days earlier, Abra had been the scene of clashes between loyalists of Ahmad al-Assir, a local salafi sheikh, and people supporting Hizbullah. Those had lasted three hours, and we expected the fighting that broke out on June 23rd to be the same.

But something wasn’t right. The sounds were surprisingly intense. It felt more like a war and its target was the Lebanese Army. From our living room on the eighth floor, I saw a military tank hit. The explosion was huge and dark smoke filled the street. Braving snipers’ bullets and the risk of stray shells, I took this picture.


I had reported from Afghanistan, but this time I found myself turned  into a war correspondent (Arabic) in my own neighbourhood. Soon we learned that soldiers had been killed. It was chaos. Masked militiamen roamed many streets in Sidon. Civilians were trapped. Rumors began to spread that Hizbullah loyalists had got involved, either by shelling Assir’s stronghold (which includes a mosque), or by fighting on the ground alongside Army soldiers. The men came from Haret Saida, the Shiite suburb of Sidon.

Over the previous months, Assir, himself Sunni, had gained undeniable popularity amongst fundamentalist Sunni youth all over Lebanon, and even attracted the support of some Christians. He had staged demonstrations in Beirut, and a sit-in in Sidon, demanding that Hizbullah be disarmed, condemning it as an Iranian party, and denouncing it for fighting beside the Syrian army against the rebels there.

The combat in Abra lasted a day and a half. Spent ammunition cases lay on the ground, shattered glass and burnt cars all around. The devastated buildings near Assir’s stronghold brought back almost forgotten memories of my childhood during the civil war. It felt like the Libyan city of Misrata, from which I had reported last year.

Opinion divided on sectarian lines. In the nearby Ain El Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, the biggest in Lebanon, a young man told me “the Sunnis had been crushed for some time now and Assir was standing up for them.” In Shiite Haret Saida, older men denied Hizbullah was involved in the “incidents” and were happy to see Assir gone.

Three weeks have passed. Assir’s whereabouts are still unknown, as are those his confidant Fadl Shaker, a one time romantic singer turned religious fundamentalist. Some claim he is hiding out in the Ain El Hilweh camp, others that he managed to escape to areas controlled by Salafi militias in Syria. They are fugitives now. Supporters compare them to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, hiding out and releasing tapes. Opponents do the same, and hope they end up the same way.

The sheikh has issued an audio recording accusing Hizbullah of attacking his compound, while his supporters have massed in demonstrations after Friday prayers. Other people were angry too. Young men died in the compound, fighting to defend Assir and their mosque. To their families and friends, they are “martyrs,” killed by Hizbullah and the Army.

The army had its martyrs too. Videotapes confiscated from Assir’s compound cameras revealed shocking conversations between the sheikh and his men. He ordered them to kill soldiers, calling them animals. One armed man asked for permission to shell a tank, quite possibly the one I saw being blown up.

Last week, Dahieh, a Southern suburb of Beirut and Hizbullah’s stronghold, was hit by a car bomb. It was a big blow to the party and shattered confidence in its much vaunted security system. The attackers planted it on what is to some Shiites the first day of Ramadan, and the eve of the holy month to other Shiites and Sunnis.

Although Hizbullah accused Israel of the attack, many believed it was the result of its involvement in Syria, and perhaps retaliation for its role bolstering Assad’s forces in Qusair and Homs. Assir’s supporters were not alone in rejoicing.  Many of the Shiite party’s other opponents joined in. Their “enemy” had been hit. Political condemnation of the blast was nominal. Once more, sectarian rifts have grown deep amid a political stalemate.

General elections have been postponed and the Prime Minister designate has not been able form a government in more than three months. Political alliances shift constantly. All eyes are turned to Homs, Aleppo, and most importantly Damascus. The crucial question in Lebanese politics is Syrian: will Bashar Assad remain in power or be ousted?


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