Thursday, April 25, 2013

Sidon's Salafists eager for battle

[Originally posted at NOW]

Fadel Shaker was in a talkative mood when NOW found him standing outside Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir’s Bilal Bin Rabah mosque on Wednesday afternoon. The former celebrity pop singer turned arch-partisan of the Sidon cleric was with half a dozen young men also sporting Salafist-style beards, and could scarcely have been less reticent when approached for questions.

Would he be joining the “Free Resistance Brigades,” the new Sidon-based militia established by Assir on Monday? “Of course!” was his reply, quickly echoed by the rest of the men. NOW then asked if he and his comrades would also be heading to fight in Syria, as per Assir’s call for “jihad” against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and Hezbollah. The response was equally prompt: “Insha’Allah! [God willing]”

At this, Shaker grew animated. “All Shiites are brothers of whores!” he declared in a raised voice. “Write that down!” NOW asked if he indeed meant all Shiites, or was only referring to Hezbollah – a distinction typically made by Assir. “No: all of them! Shiites are the same as the bottom of my shoe!” he replied, to much laughter from his comrades. He continued cursing the sect for another thirty seconds or so, turning his ire on the late Iranian Grand Ayatollah Khomeini before NOW thanked him and parted ways.

In his apartment facing the mosque, Assir himself adopted a distinctly more restrained tone. “We’re not here to fight the Shia. The goal of the Free Resistance Brigades is self-defense – against Israel, if they choose to attack us, and against Hezbollah if they do,” the sheikh told NOW. “We have said many times that we refuse fighting and causing civil war in Lebanon.”

Assir has been talking of starting a militia since last November, and its formation is still in the planning stages, he told NOW. At present, he says, around 300 Lebanese and Palestinians from Sidon and its suburbs have signed on to join – a number he hopes will grow to several thousands (registration takes place outside his mosque after evening prayers) – but no formal training has taken place. He confirmed that he and his sons would personally be members of the Brigades.

These are not necessarily, however, the same people Assir intends to wage jihad across the border. “The people addressed in the fatwa[religious decree] for jihad are those living on the border, because it’s easier for them to access Syria.” He added, though, that “if there’s a need, we will back them up.”

Assir’s call to arms – seconded by prominent Tripoli cleric Sheikh Salem al-Rafei – comes at a time of intense fighting in and around Syria’s Qusayr, a rebel-held town roughly 10km from Lebanon’s northeastern border. The battle for Qusayr, which pits regime loyalists including an estimated 800-1,200 Hezbollah members against opposition militants, was reportedly described by Assad himself as the “main battle” in all of Syria at present.

“Hezbollah is fighting in Qusayr, and the Lebanese state isn’t saying a word against them,” Assir told NOW. “We’ve stayed away for two years, but now with Hezbollah attacking our Syrian brothers from one side and the regime attacking them from another, they’re under siege. We have to support them, this is a matter of shari’a [Islamic law].”

This was also the line taken by Rafei, who pledged Monday to “send men and weapons in support of our Sunni brothers in Qusayr.” Assir told NOW that due to Rafei’s substantial influence in Tripoli, he expects he will send over a thousand fighters across the border. Rafei could not be reached by NOW for comment.

With the line thus blurring between Syria’s and Lebanon’s fighters (“We say to our Syrian brothers, your war is our war,” as Rafei put it) and the prospect of organized sectarian war between Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites in Syria, analysts tell NOW the Assir-Rafei plan may bode ill for Lebanon’s security.

“This definitely drags Lebanon further into the Syrian conflict,” said Dr. Imad Salamey, professor of political science at the Lebanese American University. “We now have two sides in Lebanon – Hezbollah, which is already fully engaged in the fighting, and the pro-opposition Sunni groups promising similar military engagement. If things continue on this course, it may eventually bring the border villages and mixed Sunni-Shiite areas in the Beqaa Valley into similar conflict. This is really alarming and dangerous.”

Moreover, argues Salamey, “whether they know it or not, [Assir and Rafei] are playing into the Syrian regime’s hands, by turning the crisis into a region-wide one, which will lead the international community to prefer a political settlement in the regime’s favor.”

With that said, however, Salamey adds that the extent of the damage may be limited by Assir’s still-marginal following within the Sunni community. “Assir’s significance is not as it seems in the press. Sure, he can send some fighters to Syria, but this is also him trying to attract some attention and demonstrate his strategic relevance in swaying politics in Lebanon and Syria.”

“He and Rafei are trying to show that Hezbollah is not the only party that can play the ‘Syria’ card.”

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

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