The conflict in Syria has exacerbated traditional communal tensions in Lebanon, writes Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. 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. With Hezbollah increasingly viewed as an overtly sectarian militia due to its involvement in the 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.
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.
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.
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.