Al-Assir: the runaway sheikh

In the wake of this episode, the Lebanese are well aware of the aphorism attributed to Trotsky, “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you”.

The Al-Assir phenomena in Lebanon last week came to an inconclusive end. Yet, despite the escape of Sidon’s Sheikh Ahmad Al-Assir and the defeat of his henchmen, many including the fugitive Sheikh’s sister believe “there are hundreds of Al-Assirs” to come.

While this may well be true due to the reasonable Sunni grievances Al-Assir shamelessly exploited and aggravated, his attack on an army checkpoint and the ensuing clashes meant that few could publicly side with him. Indeed, apart from some Sunni extremists and Salafists namely in Tripoli who protested in support of Al-Assir, few could officially condone his clash with the Lebanese army and his frantic call for Sunnis to defect from what he labelled an “Iranian and sectarian army”.

After containing this latest round of confrontation in Lebanon, investigations into the two day clashes, which left 18 soldiers and 21 of Al-Assir’s men dead as well as allegations of maltreatment of prisoners, have since been demanded and instigated.

While some have claimed that Hezbollah and Amal Movement operatives were on the scene, which seems likely, others are keen to find out where the Sheikh and some aides, including a singer-turned-extremist, have fled to and if there was a deal struck to spare them.

Amongst the scenarios mooted is one that said the strident Sheikh who had previously called for Jihad in Syria was present, a claim later denied by the so-called Free Syrian Army. Another rumour claims that the self-ordained Sunni saviour is taking refuge in a GCC-embassy in Beirut or in the nearby Palestinian camp, sparking fears of another Nahr al-Bared . What is certain, however, is that Sheikh Al-Assir’s miscalculation, a watershed moment of sorts, has brought about his long overdue political demise.

Still the festering Sunni grievances mean that more Assir-like figures can indeed rise and potentially take more than a Sidon neighbourhood hostage. Such phenomena are linked to a series of painful setbacks including the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005 and of Brigadier-General Wissam al-Hassan, a former Hariri aide and senior security official, the ouster of Saad al-Hariri from government in 2011, together with the May 7, 2008 “events” when Hezbollah and its allies attacked the offices and media of Hariri’s Future movement and its allies.

The increasingly sectarian war in neighbouring Syria and the intervention of Hezbollah and some Lebanese Sunnis on either side of the conflict, has only added fuel to the fire.

Still, and despite the vacuum on the executive level, the increasing number of refugees and the doubtful possibility of a political settlement in Lebanon, a Hobbesian civil conflict similar to the traumatic 15-year Lebanese civil war remains unlikely.

A series of sporadic but contained incidents in a variety of regions including Sidon, the Bekaa, Tripoli and potentially also in Beirut, however are expected to continue. Meanwhile, the Lebanese are well aware of the aphorism attributed to Trotsky, “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you”.

About the author

Sarah El-Richani is a doctoral student from Lebanon researching the Lebanese media system from a comparative perspective.

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