INU – In 2013, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) engaged in a daylong military operation against Sunni jihadi leader Sheikh Ahmed Assir and 200 of his well-armed supporters in the Sidon neighborhood of Abra. During the next 25 hours, the LAF reportedly discharged some 400,000 rounds of ammunition while trying to dispatch the jihadis. The LAF called for Hezbollah backup, coordinating operations with the Iranian-backed militia to storm the militant’s stronghold and finally vanquish the group.
Assir has been in prison since 2015 for directing clash in Sidon in which 17 soldiers were killed. Last week, a Lebanese military court sentenced him to death. The announcement of his execution sparked Sunni protests across the state, because for many Sunnis, the harsh treatment of Assir is emblematic of the Shi’a militia Hezbollah’s increasingly overt dominance in Beirut.
Reportedly, Hezbollah has been coordinating more closely with state institutions, including the military, to fight Sunni Islamist militants. The LAF is said to have possibly facilitated the movement of Hezbollah fighters and military material in and out of Syria, where they have been fighting on behalf of the Assad regime against Sunni rebels since 2011. As well, between 2013 and 2014 the LAF and Hezbollah established joint security checkpoints in Beirut to prevent domestic terrorist attacks perpetrated by Sunni militants targeting Hezbollah.
The close cooperation between Beirut and Hezbollah, who have been deemed a terrorist organization by the United States and most of Europe, contrasts with the state’s treatment of its Sunni terrorists. It’s believed that the perception in Lebanon is that the state affords Hezbollah and its allies license for their terrorist actions.
In fact, Hezbollah sits in a coalition government in Beirut, alongside Sunni political opponents and Christian parties. The Sunni members of parliament are led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri of the Future Movement, who is the son of the former premier assassinated by Hezbollah. They were elected in 2009 on a pro-West, anti-Iran platform. Yet Tehran’s increasing domestic influence has led to a pragmatic detente between the Shi’a militia and Sunnis.
Last year, former (Sunni) Minister of Justice in Hariri’s government, Ashraf Rifi, resigned from his post. He has been criticizing Hariri for what he calls collaboration with Hezbollah. Rifi is also a critic of Syria’s Assad regime as well as the Iranian “project” in Lebanon. In May, largely based on his Sunni sectarian rhetoric, Rifi won the municipal elections in Tripoli. If he does well in the 2018 parliamentary elections, it will weaken the pro-West Sunni community regarding Hezbollah, and solidify the state’s leanings toward Iran.
This is not good news for Lebanon or for the United States. Washington has a great interest in Lebanon’s stability, as the state borders Israel.
The course in Lebanon is tied to Iran’s increasing influence, which has recently become a concern in Syria and Iraq, too. Preventing deterioration in Lebanon may ultimately be based on Washington’s ability to reverse Iran’s influence.