|The British Financial Timesposted an article Thursday explaining the effect of President Mohammad Mursi’s ouster on the country’s foreign policy, considering that Mursi’s offset of Egypt’s presidency a blow to Qatar, which bet on the Muslim Brotherhood all over the last year.
“Few predicted that challenge would come within a week as Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government fell, and the credibility of Qatar’s activist foreign policy took a major blow,” it said.
The daily also revealed that Qatar has poured $8bn of financial support into Egypt in post-Mubarak era, and has been the main Gulf backer of Mursi’s government.
“Qatar’s support for post-Mubarak Egypt has run to the heart of Doha’s backing of Islamist groups since the revolutions of the Arab uprising swept across north Africa,” the FT article read.
“Its legacy will be associated with that of the leader whose presidency was doomed on Wednesday,” it added.
The author stated in his article that the new emir of Qatar hinted at his tendency toward moderation in foreign policy, but analysts believe that any change in Qatar’s foreign policy must be gradual.
“While Sheikh Tamim, the new emir, is hinting at a moderation of Qatar’s adventurist foreign policy, analysts say any change will be gradual as Doha’s position is so deeply set.”
Unlike Qatar, the article said, the other Arab states in the Gulf such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, are uncomfortable with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and are now ready to pump funds to help any interim administration keep the Egyptian economy afloat.
Citing an economist, the auther noted that Qatar got it wrong in Libya, then in Syria, and now billions of dollars could go down the pan in Egypt.
“That money was meant to buy political advantage, but they backed the wrong horse,” the expert said.
[This derailment of a train headed to Sochi comes just 4 days after “Al-CIA-da” Islamist Chechen leader calls for volunteers to attack Sochi targets and to sabotage the coming olympics. That’s the way that CIA participates in so-called “public diplomacy,” to supply the manpower to carry-off the terrorist attacks that are thereafter linked to the fake terrorist leader, such as this “Doku” patsy.]
At least 80 people have been injured with 15 in hospital after a passenger train derailed in southern Russia. It’s thought the driver applied the emergency brake after seeing that track deformed due to heat, a police source said.
Five cars derailed when the 19-car train heading from Novosibirsk in Siberia to the Black Sea resort of Adler came off the tracks in the Kuschevsky district of the southern Krasnodar region.
“At 16:52 Moscow time, the first five cars of train No.140H derailed on the haul between Krylovskaya and Kislyakovka. The cars overturned and are lying on their sides,” spokesman for the Emergencies Ministry, Oleg Voronov, told ITAR-TASS news agency.
According to the Emergencies Ministry, there are no casualties as a result of the crash, with 15 people, including one child, hospitalized, while the rest escaping with minor injuries.
“In all, 600 people were traveling on the train,” spokesman for the Emergencies Ministry, Tatyana Kobzarenko, told Interfax news agency. “All of them were taken off the train and, with the exception of those hospitalized, delivered to the Oktyabrskaya village.”
“The Russian railways will now decide on how they will continue moving towards their destination,” she added.
A police source informed ITAR-TASS news agency that an emergency brake application is considered to be one of the primary causes for the derailment, with the accident not connected to terrorist activity.
“The locomotive driver noticed that the tracks were deformed due to the heat and was forced to apply emergency break,” the source said, adding that “the consequences could’ve been much worth” if this wasn’t done.
Traffic on the line is currently halted, with repair brigades heading to the crash site, Russian Railways told RIA-Novosti.
KABUL (PAN): The Senate — upper house of the parliament — on Sunday asked the president’s national security advisor to brief it on the views he shared with lower house members regarding reconciliation with the Taliban.
On Saturday, Wolesi Jirga member from northern Faryab province quoted Dr. Rangin Dadfar Spanta as saying that reconciliation negotiations were yet to get under way and that the government was not in contact with any key Taliban figure.
High Peace Council Chairman Masoom Stanikzai informed MPs some senior Taliban figures, including Syed Tayeb Agha, were in secret contact with the government to facilitate the process.
But Dr. Spanta insisted the reconciliation effort remained stalled, because the Taliban in touch with the government had no influence on the movement. Militants with personal or tribal links with PHC members were in talks with the authorities, the advisor explained
Spanta’s remarks provoked a heated debate in the Meshrano Jirga, with a senator from Takhar province accusing the advisor of making the startling statement all too late. Abdul Wahab Irfan said: “It means people have been hoodwinked over the past few years…”
The advisor’s views were tantamount to playing with public will and sentiments regarding the peace process, Irfan believed, asking what the HPC had been doing these years when there was no such process in motion.
Baz Mohammad Zurmati, a legislator from Paktia province, also denounced the ex-foreign minister’s remarks as “irresponsible”. For years, he said, the Karzai administration had been in search of the Taliban’s address.
Now that the insurgents have opened their political office in Doha, Spanta has come up with the observation that peace parleys were yet to commence, according to the lawmaker, who said: “The advisor is saying all this in an attempt to save retain his position.”
He suggested Spanta should be summoned along with Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul and HPC leaders to paint a real and accurate picture of the peace drive.
A public representative from western Herat province, Shahnaz Ghausi said Afghanistan was going through a sensitive phase and the authorities must exercise caution on issues of national importance. If reconciliation stayed elusive, PHC should be abolished, he demanded.
1st Deputy Chairman Mohammad Alam Ezedyar, who chaired the Senate session, assailed government officials of giving contradictory statements on the peace process and other key matters.
He directed domestic security and international panels to summon Spanta, Rassoul and Stanikzai and seek an update from them on the peace campaign.
First, the notable strength of those army divisions propping up the regime by force, thanks to the complex logistic, organizational, and sectarian structure left behind by the late President Hafez al-Assad.
Second, the vehemence of Russian and Chinese stances in preventing any external military intervention.
Third, the absence of any high level political or military defections that could threaten the army’s effective cohesion.
Fourth, the appearance of groups and units with a Takfiri or pro-al-Qaeda orientation that has raised hackles in Washington.
Fifth, the infighting among the various opposition groups.
Sixth, Iran’s declared and undeclared threats against anyone who supports toppling the Assad regime by force.
Seventh, the rallying of the Alawites, other minorities, and a portion of the Sunnis around the regime, whether out of conviction or fear of the future.
Eighth, worries harbored by some Gulf states about the Muslim Brotherhood gaining control over Syria. A hostile transition could occur with little warning and there have recently been reports of clashes between Jabhat al-Nusrah and the Free Syrian Army in some regions.
All these factors have enabled Moscow to move with greater vigor. If one were to tally up all the pro-regime declarations made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, it would probably outnumber those made by Syria’s own Foreign Minister Walid Moallem dozens of times over. As one member of the Syrian opposition jokingly put it, “It’s gotten so that we ought to call him ‘Sergei Moallem.'”
The Russian leadership would not taken this course unless it was convinced, as is Iran, that the regime’s military might remains significant and capable of turning the tables. Neither would it have taken this course if it were not convinced that administration of American President Barack Obama is caught on the horns of a dilemma in Syria, and that it is turning a blind eye to the fact that the Syrian Army is operating in regions where al-Qaeda or groups and formations that America has accused of terrorism have a base. It is true that Washington and certain European countries have threatened Syria against using chemical weapons, but it is also true that the use of all non-chemical weapons are being tolerated. At least so far.
What does the data say?
The Obama administration is enduring a crisis that is fast developing into a major embarrassment. It is clear that some of the $ 25 million it allocated to the opposition National Coalition has been given to Jabhat al-Nusrah, something which caused a great deal of consternation, that has so far been kept hidden, particularly as Washington placed Jabhat al-Nusrah on the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. It is said that certain American diplomats paid for this with their jobs.
Moscow is loudly warning of unbridled chaos, sectarian war, and the Somalia-ization of Syria if a political solution is not achieved. Even as Russia issues warnings, though, it is seeking to broaden its contacts among the opposition while simultaneously creating a rift in Arab ranks and drawing certain parties around to Moscow’s position. Then there are new reports coming from Egypt, Iraq, Algeria and some Gulf States. They speak of an ongoing resentment harbored by Gulf leaders, particularly of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, against President Assad. One that UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has described as reaching the level of “personal hatred” and that, according to him, hinders a peaceful solution. As a result of the latest Russian moves, Moscow will soon host at least one Arab foreign minister, and possibly more. The Russian leadership finds itself in dire need of the Arab political cover this might provide.
The Russian leadership considers the survival of the Syrian Army as a strong, cohesive fighting force the most effective – and possibly the only – guarantee of Syria’s future. And not only of Syria’s future, but of Russia’s future in Syria. Lavrov has said as much on more than one occasion in the recent past. He noted some members of the opposition continue to shun the military establishment in all of their rhetoric. This is precisely what explains some of the flexibility of Russia’s positions regarding Assad’s remaining in power, and their vehement rejection of any foreign military intervention. The Syrian army, as far as Moscow is concerned, is a red line. Russian officials have recently said as much to their guests, and they have successfully imposed this upon Washington as a condition for any future settlement. Washington itself has signaled its acceptance of this term on more than occasion, as for instance when it declared that government and security institutions “must remain intact” in the post-Assad period.
Some Gulf countries that harbor a fundamental hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood have opened lines of communication to those factions of the opposition unaffiliated with the Brotherhood. There is a real intention to widen the margin of cooperation with the National Coordination Council (NCC), an effort led by NCC spokesman Haytham al-Manna. Some of these countries have got their foot in the door through aid, while others through generic politicking. This extends even to Tunisia where President Moncef Marzouki will soon present a plan clarifying that he is closer to the secular opposition than the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Syria.
The European Union is currently experiencing a heated debate over its relations with the Syrian opposition. Most of this discussion revolves around the questions posed by the existence of Jabhat al-Nusrah. Some Europeans are demanding it be placed on the list of terrorist organizations while others, like London, Paris and Madrid, insist on postponing the matter. One of their more prominent diplomats, who recently met with Syrians, said that “when Assad leaves, we will put Jabhat al-Nusrah on the list of terrorist groups immediately.” When the Syrian dissident asked: “But do you have any idea when Assad will depart? “The diplomat responded,” No one has any concept as to when that happens, but he will go sooner or later. “The dissident replied,” how? “and the diplomat responded” I don’t know, ” and lapsed into silence.
The Europeans are dealing with another problem as well. Namely, their sense of being marginalized by the Geneva Initiative as well as in the current negotiations between Moscow, Washington, and Brahimi. The UN envoy himself has in private meetings focused exclusively on the American and Russian tracks. He believes that the only hurdle in the way of a resolution lies in some of the Gulf States. He says that he enjoys excellent relations with the Americans and that he would not have accepted the mission if he had not had a prior understanding with them. He also says that he knows Lavrov up close and has worked with him for year but “the problem is in some of the hot-headed leaders of some Arab states.” He wants to bring in Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey (the last only to avoid causing embarrassment) in order to provide guarantees of a future settlement. The Egyptian Foreign Minister seems enthusiastic about the prospect.
Meetings with some factions of the Syrian opposition, including the NCC, as well as with a number of Iranian officials have permitted the range of discussion concerning Syria’s future. It is true that Tehran has different opinions about what is transpiring in Syria, and that some officials had hesitated to come to Damascus in protest against the bloody specter of Syria’s internal situation, but it is also true that Tehran has told its guests that a political solution depends upon an agreement between the opposition and the regime, and that Tehran will support any faction that will keep Syria within the resistance camp. Its officials have also said that, even though Iran itself is an Islamic regime, it prefers that Syria be ruled by a democratic regime, whatever its character. Tehran is now going even further than that, and attempting to convince the regime to release opposition prisoners, and is aiding the regime in searching for some of them.
The Syrian opposition, for its part, will see a rising antagonism between its various factions. All attempts to unite them under the banner of the National Coalition have failed. One of these attempts, for example, was disclosed by a prominent Syrian dissident. He revealed that several senior Saudi officials, including several princes, personally demanded that members of the opposition join the coalition in exchange for half a million dollars and a monthly stipend of $ 10,000 per person.
Some signs of the dissension, for example, include the fact that several members of the opposition have deliberately discredited the narrative of a massacre at the Helfaya bakery in the Hama countryside. One confirmed that, in the area that was bombed, no bakery even existed to begin with. He also revealed that of the 47 who were killed, 40 of them were either members of Jabhat al-Nusrah or their supporters. The rest of the bodies were unidentified. That means that the issue ultimately goes back to the question of foreign fighters. He says that they were bombed by the army in response to the targeting of one of their bases. The foreign fighters were the ones were the ones who threw bread upon the dead in order to say the victims were massacred while simply trying to get their daily bread.
What about Russia and America?
Reports confirm that the two sides’ positions have moved much closer together. Both want the Syrian army to remain intact to confront the spread of al-Qaeda and terrorism more broadly. Both have come to accept that officials from the current regime will participate in a future settlement. Both want the opposition to become more inclusive, and are cooperating with some of the Gulf states to bring this about. It should come as no surprise that the UAE or the Sultanate of Oman should be welcoming delegations from the non-Muslim Brotherhood segments of the opposition.
Moscow understands the delicacy of the American position concerning Assad’s remaining in power. Still, Russian officials say to anyone who asks, “Let’s put this issue aside and come to an agreement about Syria’s political future.”
Should the questioner persist on seeking a clarification of Moscow’s position, Lavrov will give the following answer, “We don’t have any prophets in Syria. Europe’s relations with Assad were a hundred times stronger than our own. But this is a Syrian matter, and until now President Assad has not told us that he wants to leave office. We cannot force him to do so and it is not our role to pressure him. We have done what we must do regarding chemical weapons and other matters, but the other side has not halted its support for the armed opposition. Indeed, they have continued doing so, in direct contradiction to the interest of Syria and Syrians. “
One might elaborate on the Russian position on Assad by noting that the Syrian president himself has not seemed averse to shortening the length of his current term and holding early elections, on condition that he is able to run as a candidate in those elections. That is, should a political agreement with the opposition be reached. A prominent Syrian dissident has also conveyed as much. Those close to Assad say that, if he runs again, it would prove to everyone that the lion’s share of the Syrian people remains by his side. Another Syrian dissident hastens to say that Assad will not run, because he knows that he won’t win even a minuscule percentage of the votes.
One European diplomat who previously met with Assad states that the Syrian president is not the sort of man who would tolerate making a concession, and that he is convinced that he is combating an Islamic-Gulf-Western offensive against him. He further added that the hard core of the regime – namely, the Alawite sect and the senior officers – will categorically reject such a concession, as there is currently no Alawite alternative to Assad. Likewise, all the Western attempts to convince a senior Alawite military commander to defect have failed – regardless of what Manaf Tlass tells his French interlocutors about being in contact with Alawite military leaders.
One European diplomat believes that Assad, who often professes before his guests that he would accept, from a legal and constitutional perspective, the holding of early elections should an agreement be concluded with the opposition. And he would plan to run in them. But he would not accept, under any circumstances whatsoever, calling into effect a cease-fire before a political agreement was reached and guarantees were provided. In other words, a cease-fire would follow an agreement, not precede it.
According to this diplomat, the extremism of the positions adopted by the West, the National Coalition, and the rebel armed groups toward Assad’s departure differs from one group to another. The armed groups and some pillars of the opposition actually want him to leave, and are ready to fight to overthrow him. The rest understand that raising the ceiling of their demands to such a degree must be followed by a reduction in their demands, so as to obtain positions in the future government.
One well-known Syrian figure agrees with this position. He says that the current conflict between the various groups of the opposition and the heated debate between Moscow and Washington no longer centers upon whether Assad will stay or go, but how to distribute government positions and spoils.
They noted with great interest the statement Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa recently made to the Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar. It’s true that his remarks did not garner a great deal of support from the Syrian leadership, but there are those who place great importance on Sharaa as the future nucleus for any negotiation process. Among them are Baathists living inside Syria and abroad, as well as some military and political leaders. They believe that a reformist step like this will lead to a broad opening for a dialogue with the opposition, one that will receive international support, even if it comes in the shadow of an implicit understanding with Assad, or as a result of a green light from him.
There are indications that important political rifts may soon develop internationally and among Arab states. Brahimi is optimistic of an approaching Russian-American convergence, despite his general pessimism over the internal situation in Syria and the positions of some Arab states. But mattes will not move as quickly as some assume. One must wait for Obama’s administration to take shape as well as for progress on the American-Iranian negotiations. Iran is eager to put out as many fires as possible, including the fire in Syria, before its own as-yet-uncertain elections are held.
To be sure, the train is moving forward, but the problem lies in its course. States of such vast strategic importance as Syria must reach a solution before many more additional battles. During periods of negotiations, each side must raise pressure on the other to the maximum. Credible Western information indicates that Jabhat al-Nusrah and some of the other brigades will execute profoundly dangerous operations in the near future to demonstrate their prowess on the ground. Other states that still believe that Assad must go, even if by force, such as France and Britain, are encouraging the battle against the regime to continue. Some documented evidence suggests that there are substantial differences separating Paris and Washington on the question of arming the rebels and the Syrian future.
Where is Lebanon?
Western sources stress that “dangerous” elements of al-Qaeda are present in Lebanon and that other elements of the Free Syrian Army have come to find a “welcoming environment.” It is said that Western capitals, including Paris, have officially demanded that the National Coalition and those influential with the armed rebel groups preserve Lebanon’s neutrality. It is also said that Western intelligence officials have come more than once to Lebanon in the recent past, or hosted their Lebanese counterparts in Europe. They have purportedly exchanged information that has made clear that certain members of al-Qaeda wanted by Western countries have arrived in Lebanon and Syria, and that there is a significant probability that they are engaged in terrorist activities. Therefore information exchanges are being intensified and some Lebanese security apparatuses are being equipped with advanced surveillance and logistical equipment.
Such information, if added to the lists of al-Qaeda fighters in Syria that Russia has provided to the Americans, would likely render Moscow and Washington more willing to reach a political settlement. But all this remains at least two months away and subject to security developments on the ground. All indications say that violence will increase, because a settlement remains in its infancy and each side continues to insist that it is capable of winning a conclusive victory. Meanwhile, massive vested interest have come to intersect with one another, particularly those pertaining to the oil discoveries off the Mediterranean.
Waiting for all to be convinced that a solution will be implemented in what remains of Syria, it seems that much innocent blood remains to be shed before either negotiations make progress, or military developments significant enough to change the equation take place in a country where everything has become possible.
This article was first published in Arabic on 31/12/2012. Read original article.
Ambassador Asiri, whom some have said practices “constructive ambiguity,” was rather clear on July 2 when, during a telephone interview with Lebanon’s National News Agency one hour before his meeting in Rabieh, he sent a clear message and expressed “serious concern about the continual incidents throughout Lebanon — from Tripoli, Akkar, Arsal and Sidon — incidents directly linked to Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria.”
He added, “These concerns portend negative consequences if their causes are not remedied. It is a general interest that Hezbollah reconsider its policy toward the Sunnis and other sects because the Lebanese people have to eventually live together. Hezbollah must expand dialogue and rapprochement, instead of taking matters toward more tensions and divisions, which may lead the country into a dark tunnel.”
Asiri also said, “What Hezbollah is doing against Lebanon is increasing the divisions and subjecting the country to dangers that will also affect the Shiite community, because many members and religious scholars of that honorable community, and many Lebanese from various sects, do not approve of Hezbollah’s behavior inside and outside Lebanon.”
The Rabieh meeting
Asiri said the above words before he met with Aoun for over two hours in Rabieh, where Aoun hosted Asiri for a lunch also attended by Minister Bassil. Yet what happened during the visit that came based on “the kind invitation of Michel Aoun,” according to Asiri’s statement?
Asiri, Aoun and Bassil had a “friendly and frank” political discussion. Asiri expressed to As-Safir “the kingdom’s keenness to maintain security and stability in Lebanon and the keenness of King Abdullah to communicate with all the Lebanese in the interest of Lebanon.”
FPM sources told As-Safir, “Aoun never doubted the goodwill of King Abdullah toward Lebanon and this goodwill is not new, but goes back a long time. [Aoun] thanked King Abdullah for his historic goodwill toward Lebanon.”
When Asiri was meeting Aoun, Asiri’s wife Aisha was hosting in her Yarzeh home a luncheon in honor of first lady Wafaa Suleiman. The luncheon was attended by a number of Lebanese female political figures from various sects. They included former first ladies and wives of prime ministers and heads of parliament, including Randa Berri.
Did Saudi Arabia decide to embrace Lebanon’s Christians, from the presidency to the leader of the Christian bloc. Michel Aoun? What is the political message of the meeting between Asiri and Aoun?
Asiri told As-Safir, “I responded to a social invitation made by an influential Christian leader, who has weight and influence on the Lebanese political scene. We focused on the kingdom’s support for Lebanon’s stability in light of the current circumstances and challenges.”
Some have interpreted the visit as a Saudi attempt to strip Hezbollah of its Christian cover. To that, Asiri said, “This is a wrong interpretation. The previous meetings are many and were made publicly. Minister Bassil visited the kingdom to participate in a conference. Our communications with the FPM are not new and are not at anyone’s expense. The kingdom seeks to bring people together, not divide them, and is working in the interest of Lebanon and its stability.”
Some have speculated that Aoun is maneuvering to pressure Hezbollah after this ally did not support him in extending the terms of parliament and the army commander. To that, Asiri said, “I think you should direct that question to Aoun because he can answer it better than I can. And I think that he alluded to that during his interview with New TV.” Asiri added, “Bassil publicly visited the kingdom and I think that what is happening is a step to develop the relationship [between the FPM and Saudi Arabia] because it helps Lebanon.”
When asked whether they talked about the 300,000 Lebanese living in the kingdom, given the apprehensions following the GCC’s decision to prohibit dealing with Hezbollah and its supporters, Asiri said, “The Lebanese in the kingdom are our brothers and they are living in their second homeland. With regard to who is affected by the GCC decision, [those who are affected] are responsible for that.”
Regarding the Sunni frustration after the Abra events, Asiri said, “There is no doubt that Lebanon’s Sunnis are facing real challenges and are passing through periods that may inflame Sunni-Shiite tensions. We hope that the wise men from the Shiite and Sunni sects act to ease this evident frustration to avoid dire consequences.”
This article was first published in Arabic on 7/3/2013. Read original article.
“There is an international decision to encircle the Jihadi Salafist movements and even reduce the level of political ambitions of the Islamist currents in general.”
A battle against a Salafi sheikh is raising questions about regional politics and the state of Lebanon’s Sunnis, writes Omayma Abdel-Latif in Sidon
Supporters of hardline Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmed Al-Assir chant slogans against Hizbullah during a demonstration after Friday prayer in Sidon (photo: AP)
In the first week of March, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Asir called on his supporters to participate in “the battle of dignity” by organising a sit-in in front of the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah’s offices located a few blocks away from his mosque at Belal Bin Rabah.
Al-Asir threatened “an earthquake that will never calm down”, and Lebanon braced itself for an inevitable showdown between Al-Asir’s supporters and those of Hizbullah. Al-Asir’s incessant flow of provocations, not fearing to incite sectarian hatred, had turned the city into a time bomb that could be expected to explode for the tiniest reason.
Last week, things came full circle when the Lebanese army put an end to “the earthquake” that had threatened to engulf the country in a sectarian confrontation between Sunnis and Shia, a confrontation that some Sunni political and religious figures in Sidon said was the endgame of those who had financed Al-Asir and secured political cover for his outlawed activities.
But as the dust of the two-day battles settles, and as the hunt is still on for Al-Asir, who has turned from a superstar sheikh into a fugitive, his whereabouts being material for all sorts of speculation, more important questions are emerging about the regional implications and what the battle has meant for Lebanon’s Sunnis as well as for Sunni-Shia relations in the country.
Many analysts quickly tied the Sidon events to the larger regional context and particularly to events in Syria. Leading analyst Sami Kleib said that the Sidon events should not be read in isolation from what was going on regionally, believing that a settlement of sorts was behind the decision to put an end to the Al-Asir phenomenon and that it would be naive to think that his case was isolated from the context surrounding it.
“There is an international decision to encircle the Jihadi Salafist movements and even reduce the level of political ambitions of the Islamist currents in general,” Kleib explained.
The Lebanese defence minister also acknowledged in an interview this week that the incident suggested that the “crisis in Syria has its implications for Lebanon” and that “what we are trying to do is to limit the grave consequences of such a crisis”. The minister had also warned a year ago that Al-Qaeda was active in Lebanon.
The link with the Syrian crisis could not be ignored, since Al-Asir had been citing the conflict in Syria in his sermons as one more reason for his sectarian-inspired discourse against Hizbullah and by association Lebanon’s Shia. The confrontation nonetheless raised questions about the state of Lebanon’s Sunnis, the majority of whom appear susceptible to embracing a narrative of victimisation and a belief in a plot to render them leaderless.
Confrontations such as the one that took place in Sidon, or the clashes this week in Tripoli, or even the previous ones that the Lebanese military led against Fatah Al-Islam in 2008 or against a fundamentalist cell in Seir Al-Deniya near Tripoli in 1999, have only reinforced such feelings of victimhood.
The statements made by a number of Sunni religious men following the clashes in Sidon harped on the “the injustices that have befallen the sect”. This week, calls were made on social media outlets to participate in “the dignity revolution” in solidarity with Al-Asir, which would be followed by a march to the mosque in Abra, the statements being signed by “the Sunni people of Sidon”.
The rise and fall of Al-Asir should also be read within the more general context of the Salafist movement in Lebanon in particular and the state of Lebanon’s Sunni Islamists in general.
In his analysis of the reasons why Lebanon’s Sunnis embraced Al-Asir’s discourse, commentator Ibrahim Al-Amin pointed out that such an embrace was a manifestation of a leadership vacuum and frustration with the present leadership as personified in the Al-Hariri family.
“The Sunni street is in solidarity with Al-Asir and might accept him as a spokesperson but not as a leader,” Al-Amin wrote last March. Nevertheless, there are three dimensions at work here, including inter-Sunni relations, the Sunni-Shia relationship and Hizbullah’s role in increasing the sense of victimisation among Sunnis, and their relationship with state institutions, particularly the army, which has engaged in previous confrontations with Sunni fundamentalist groups.
A troubled relationship between the military and the Sunnis emerged following a number of incidents.
The Lebanese army’s campaign against Al-Asir has triggered a fierce debate about the Sunni groups and their political and social agendas, particularly since Lebanon’s Islamists have grown to be part of the country’s political scene.
The emergence of Sunni Islamists as significant political actors in Lebanon is closely linked to former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri’s death in 2005 and the rising tide of sectarianism hitting the region following the US-led invasion of Iraq, which deepened a sense of sectarian persecution and solidarity among Lebanon’s Sunnis.
Politically, Al-Hariri’s rise to power meant the exclusion of other Sunni leaders. His death left a huge leadership vacuum that his son and successor Saad failed to fill. But his death also “Lebanonised” the Sunnis, causing them to act, in other words, as a sect among other sects and also as a minority whose existence was threatened, whose leaders were targeted, and whose sense of victimisation was deep.
At one time, it was Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad who was targeting the Sunnis, and it is within this context that phenomena such as the rise of Al-Asir in Sidon and his likes in Tripoli and in Tariq Jdeeda in Beirut should be understood.
Two factors came to define the rise of such Sunni Islamist movements: the relationship with the Tayyar Al-Mustaqbal group and with the two political parties dominating Shia politics, the Amal Movement and Hizbullah.
Al-Asir became an important tool in the face of Hizbullah, his anti-Shia and particularly anti-Hizbullah rhetoric finding a ready ear among not only Sunnis in Sidon but also in Akkar, the Beqaa Valley, and in Tripoli, though they fell short of bestowing leadership status upon him.
Shia-Sunni tensions date back before Al-Asir’s arrival on the scene. In January 2007, they reached an unprecedented peak when supporters of Hizbullah and the Amal Movement led by parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri clashed with Al-Mustaqbal supporters in violent scenes that reminded the Lebanese of the civil war days.
Anti-Shia rhetoric came to permeate the discourse of ordinary Sunnis, and both the Sunni religious establishment, represented by mufti Rashid Qabbani, and the political leadership of Tayyar Al-Mustaqbal played an important role in fanning the flames of sectarian tension on the Sunni side.
The result has been a “Sunni street” that is not only more sectarian and more radicalised in nature, but that also has been left vulnerable to more extremist religious leaders who have a stronger message of sectarian hatred and rejection of the other. The religious establishment has not only turned a blind eye to the politicisation of sectarian identities, but at times it has even been party to it.
Some Salafist forces in alliance with Al-Mustaqbal also played a significant role in inciting sections of the Sunni street against the Shia and Hizbullah, under the banner of “defending the Ahl Al-Sunna”. Anti-Shia leaflets filled with vitriolic language have been found in Beirut and the Beqaa Valley. Prominent religious scholars have been given platforms to mobilise their followers using dangerously sectarian language.
It is within this context that radical Islamists like Al-Asir began to come into their own.
Al-Asir maintained an ambivalent relationship with both Al-Mustaqbal and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, the two dominant political forces in Sidon. Al-Asir has been backed by Bahiya Al-Hariri, the MP for Sidon, but a statement by the secretary-general of Al-Mustaqbal in Sidon, Ahmed Al-Hariri, suggested that Al-Asir was no more than “a thorn in the side of opponents”.
Al-Hariri said that what had happened to Al-Asir was “expected after he turned from a supporter of the Syrian revolution to setting up an armed wing”.
Although Tayyar Al-Mustaqbal presents itself as a modern movement embracing a moderate view of Islam, it has had few qualms about undermining Islamist forces that don’t tow its line, such as the Islamic Action Front, while making alliances with forces that hold an ambivalent vision of the state and embrace a radical and at times extremist and intolerant view of Islam.
The lack of a clear political or ideological vision on the part of Al-Mustaqbal’s leadership often forces it to resort to sectarian discourse in order to mobilise its social base. In this context, the Islamists, particularly the radical elements among them, are regarded as useful tools in securing popular support.