Hezbollah, Lebanon, March 14, Syria

Assir’s Gamble: Blunder or Breakthrough?

Translation: “To all of our supporters: we are coming under attack from the Lebanese Army, which is  Iranian-[controlled] and sectarian, and also from the shabbiha of Hassan Nasr al-Lat and Nabih Berri. I call on all our supporters: the peaceful ones should go and block the streets. And I call on the honorable men — both Sunni and others — in the Lebanese Army to leave the Army immediately. And I call on our supporters outside Lebanon to go to the Lebanese embassies to protest. And on all of our supporters in every region who are prepared to come defend our religion and heritage and our women. We’re being shot at from Mar Elias, the Shiite neighborhood in Saida. We’re being shot at with every kind of shell, rocket, and mortar. God suffices us, and an excellent guardian is He.”

So announced the Lebanese salafist shaykh Ahmad al-Assir earlier today on YouTube after some of his followers clashed with the Lebanese Army, leaving several people dead including five soldiers. The army vowed to strike back “with an iron fist” and demanded that Saida’s politicians and religious figures (read, the Sunni imams and muftis who have been cowed by Assir’s vitriolic rhetoric) to “express in complete frankness their stance: either to stand next the Lebanese Army to protect civilians … and prevent [an explosion] or to stand beside the provokers of strife and killers of soldiers.”

Hizbullah and the March 8th alliance have been waiting for Assir to make a blunder like this, and did he ever deliver a doozy. Killing soldiers in plain daylight? Has Assir forgotten the near-universal support among Lebanese for the Nahr al-Barid operation in 2007, which saw an entire refugee camp reduced to rubble in the service of squashing a salafist group? Charismatic and flush with cash though the shaykh may be, his political instincts remain tender, and have made him vulnerable to the maneuverings of his opponents.

It will be interesting to see how Lebanon’s mainstream Sunni leadership handles the aftermath of this crisis. Assir initially emerged as a minor irritant to the Future Movement (FM), then blossomed into a more serious liability as his movement caused messaging issues for Hariri and his allies, particularly on the Syrian question. Today, Assir is gambling that his stance against Hizbullah and Syria will transform him from a fringe phenomenon punching above his weight into a force to be reckoned with. Whether or not he succeeds will depend, in certain ways, on how skillfully the FM can appease the Sunni street while disavowing Assir’s antics.

Next week’s political talk shows will be must-see TV. Check in here for commentary and post-game analysis.

Discussion

32 thoughts on “Assir’s Gamble: Blunder or Breakthrough?

  1. I’m going to go decisively with “blunder”. Public opinion has to be 99% against him after today. I still vividly recall the early days, when he was posing as a sort of Islamic Gandhi, ready to face down Assad’s and Hizbullah’s death squads with his bare chest, and a surprising number of quite sectarian Christians would confess to me that they rather liked him. That’s all gone now. It might be a politically incorrect thing to point out, but three of the six dead soldiers today were Christians. That’s not going to be forgotten quickly.

    Then again, what is physically going to happen next? He’s pushed all-in, and the army now either has to call, which means another Nahr al-Bared, or fold, which effectively amounts to letting the whole thing slide. Perhaps Assir has read them well, and has decided he no longer needs to be liked, as long as he is feared.

    Posted by Alex Rowell (@disgraceofgod) | June 23, 2013, 4:01 pm
  2. Whatever the outcome, this is a win win situation for Hariri. Sly Saniora is condemning the attack on the LAF but also demanding the closure of the “Resistance Brigades offices” in Abra.

    Posted by Vulcan | June 23, 2013, 5:47 pm
  3. Everybody will support LAF, but a certain times some lebanese will ask why HA is authorized to act outside the state framework

    Posted by Karoum | June 23, 2013, 6:12 pm
  4. “his political instincts remain tender, and have made him vulnerable to the maneuverings of his opponents.”

    Do I sense some sympathy for Al Assir? Is he a victim of his opponents’ maneuverings now?

    Posted by TheObserver | June 23, 2013, 6:48 pm
  5. Sympathy? I find him loathsome.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | June 23, 2013, 7:21 pm
  6. Post-game analysis? You surely can’t think that civil strife is a game…

    Posted by g | June 23, 2013, 7:22 pm
  7. The real question is when lebanon will be a normal state, with only one army and no militia. Assir shoud be blamed and fight but also HA. They are acting like a state within the state. History zill be hard for them and also their cover : FPM.

    Posted by Karoum | June 23, 2013, 9:27 pm
  8. It’s funny how many apologists now blame Hezbollah for this.

    But remeber, Hezbollah never killed Lebanese soldiers deliberately. Samer Hanna is often paraded as an example, but it was a mistake, and the killer was handed over to the state.

    Posted by habib | June 23, 2013, 9:39 pm
  9. I am surprised you call this a blunder. Even in Lebanon’s tense political situation, attacking and killing soldiers, then calling on followers to continue attacking the army can be labeled as more than a blunder.

    I hope this will resolve itself, there is nothing more worrying than watching this unfold while sitting 10K miles away.

    Posted by Jaafar | June 23, 2013, 11:26 pm
  10. Dear Habib, HA acting like a state within a state is a bad example for others groups. HA should be blamed for be a major actor in the fall of the lebanese state.
    I am sure sunni will stay behind the army

    Posted by Karoum | June 23, 2013, 11:30 pm
  11. On one hand, I hope the army hangs this Assir idiot by the balls.

    On the other hand, I have to wonder if this is the initial salvo in a 2nd Lebanese Civil war (third if you count 1958). Let us not forget that back in 75, there was a similar divide, with the army/state seeming to take sides (at least from certain people’s perspective), and one cannot argue that to some, today, the army and state do seem to exercise a type of double standard when it comes to HA.

    It will certainly be an interesting few days to come, where, as someone already stated, we’ll see whether the army calls or folds on this move by Assir.

    Lastly, I am, as always saddened by the fact that such idiocy continues in Lebanon, day after day, continuing to prove to me that we, as a people, are true imbeciles, who deserve what we get.

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | June 24, 2013, 12:38 am
  12. Einh, not sure a rational actor model is the best framework to understand Assir’s actions … or any actor’s actions really

    Posted by Tarek | June 24, 2013, 12:59 am
  13. Do you know where the cash comes from ?

    Posted by Sibylle Rizk | June 24, 2013, 1:05 am
  14. As long as the army selectively picks it battles and favours or even cowers to HA there will be many more Assirs and rightfully so. Have they even captured the HA member who killed the demonstrator at the Iranian embassy. I like the term banana country because that what Lebanon is. Assir is byproduct of the humiliation the Sunnis have felt since Hariris death.

    Posted by Vic | June 24, 2013, 2:18 am
  15. Assir will be lucky if he can escape to rebel held Syrian ground with his bunch of barbarians.

    The saddest part of this whole affair is how shamefully poor the Lebanese army is trained for such incursions on local ground.

    Posted by Whatever | June 24, 2013, 3:53 am
  16. It does not make sense that Assir gunmen opened fire on the Lebanese army, for no reason. This just gives too much credibility to Hezballah’s actions inside Syria and Mr. Nasrralah’s recent speeches.

    It is a bit too convenient.

    Posted by JY | June 24, 2013, 4:14 am
  17. One does have to wander, after all, just how much Hezballah has learned from American and Israeli false flag operations.

    Posted by JY | June 24, 2013, 4:18 am
  18. According to these photos, Assir had anti-tank weapons (?) or would a simple grenade launcher be able to penetrate an armored vehicle?

    http://www.dailystar.com.lb/PhotoGallery.aspx?id=829#axzz2X54Du5jU

    Where are our Israeli experts?

    Posted by Whatever | June 24, 2013, 4:58 am
  19. In a normal situation; this moron Assir should be strung up. However; I still do not know the series of events that led to this deadly skirmish. There are no excuses mind you but again the whole picture should be looked at. These arranged incitements in Tripoli; Saida; Bekaa do not come out of nowhere! Almost always the dirty fingers of HA’s militia is evident. It would give the Lebanese something else to discuss by changing the narrative and the title of the page from their acting as a state and invasion of Syria to these…

    To answer the question. Did he blunder? Well; in Lebanon there are always managed and arranged solutions!..He will survive; but not flourish.

    Posted by danny | June 24, 2013, 6:49 am
  20. ….and Hariri/FM can benefit by picking up the “Assir cause” (wrapped in teflon) and firming up its support on the street and reigning in the fringe.

    Posted by danny | June 24, 2013, 7:06 am
  21. Assir was able to train some 200 Lebanese Salafists into such a highly skilled fighting force, “intentionally” killing 20 Lebanese soldiers in cold blood in the process (mainly by sniper fire, apparently). In a town and specifically an area, that has recently been subject to Hezbollah operatives monitoring very closely?

    Hmm.

    Posted by Whatever | June 24, 2013, 7:17 am
  22. Why would a Sunni group go after the LAF? You’d think they’d turn their attention to Nasrallah.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-23025136

    Posted by Akbar Palace | June 24, 2013, 7:49 am
  23. Karoum,

    Every Lebanese sect now has a militia, not only Hezbollah. The difference is, they don’t attack Lebanese soldiers for no reason.

    Posted by habib | June 24, 2013, 8:37 am
  24. Surprise surprise, the Lebanese conspirators are still alive. No, we can’t just accept that some radical individual decided to take draconian actions and deliberately attack a state institution, wounding the one institution that most Lebanese can identify with. That is just far too convenient to accept.

    We must resort to quadruple guessing, because we don’t want to believe the first, second and third guesses. We have to try and twist this situation to fit our political ends, and for some that means finding a way to implicate Hezbollah in yesterday’s events.

    But regardless of Hezbollah’s questionable actions lately, by no means does this justify what Assir is doing, and at this point it is clear that his actions are a much bigger threat to Lebanon than Hezbollah’s – and that’s saying something, because Hezbollah’s actions have also not always worked in the benefit of Lebanon.

    The conspiracy theories begin, and I am honestly not surprised – it is ingrained in a Lebanese society that generally refuses to observe objectively and interpret what they see to fit it in their pre-determined political views.

    Posted by gbeaino | June 24, 2013, 9:17 am
  25. If Assir is killed or captured, will this be widely seen as a triumph for the Lebanese Army, and for the tattered authority of the state (such as it is)? Or will it be seen and trumpeted as “one more humiliation” inflicted on Lebanon’s Sunnis?

    Posted by James Reilly | June 24, 2013, 9:42 am
  26. GBEAINO,

    Are you 100% sure that this whole matter started because Assir gunmen openly fired/snipered at the LAF in cold blood?

    The only thing I am 100% about sure about is that this “retaliation” by the LAF quadrupled Qahwaji’s chances of securing the Presidency.

    Posted by Whatever | June 24, 2013, 10:48 am
  27. @Whatever,

    And what exactly is the relevance of your claims? At the end of the day, according to most reports, one of Assir’s supporters was stopped at an army checkpoint, to which Assir’s gunmen retaliated with violence against the army. Unfortunately, there is nothing to suggest that this did NOT occur (other than pure speculation), and that all media reports have it wrong.

    The reports are further legitimized by the fact that Assir’s followers do not view the army as a legitimate state institution, but as an organization that has been hijacked by Iran and Hezbollah, and for this reason they hold hostile views towards the LAF. With this in mind, and their open statements in the past about using military options to confront “Hezbollah hegemony”, I would not be surprised at all if Assir’s gunmen initiated the violence.

    Claims about Qahwaji and his presidential ambitions are, quite frankly, irrelevant and pure speculative – and whether true or not is also irrelevant. Speculation of course leads to justifying actions, and this justification often leads to sympathy of a cowardly act, and this sympathy can thereby lead to unaccountability.

    Qahwaji’s ambitions aside, Hezbollah’s role in Assir’s rise aside, and whatever other justifications you bring in, at the end of the day a radical man opened fire at a state institution that the Lebanese overwhelmingly support. That alone is enough to receive condemnation and further punishment.

    Posted by gbeaino | June 24, 2013, 11:46 am
  28. GBEAINO,

    Can you point out where I might find these reports you and the media seem to be pointing at throughout these last 24 hours for judicial verification ?

    I believe Assir and his followers claimed all you have stated, following a quite brutal retaliation by the LAF within hours of these affirmed reports?

    Don’t get me wrong. I have no sympathy for Assir. But I find these sudden developments as quite incredible by the LAF and one that I have only witnessed Hezbollah being capable of taking in such a sudden dramatic fashion throughout the past 10 years in Lebanon.

    Certainly not the LAF.

    Posted by Whatever | June 24, 2013, 12:10 pm
  29. Whatever,

    Gladly. See:

    http://dailystar.com.lb/News/Local-News/2013/Jun-24/221395-fierce-clashes-rock-south-lebanon-city-for-second-day.ashx#axzz2X9LSiNAg

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-23025136

    http://www.lbcgroup.tv/news/101621/assir-in-syria-after-2-day-battle-with-laf

    “On Sunday, the Lebanese Armed Forces’ Command issued a statement in which it said a number of its soldiers were killed and others were injured as an armed group supporting Sheikh Ahmad Al-Assir attacked an LAF checkpoint in Sidon’s Abra region. However, the media office of Sheikh Assir said that clashes erupted after LAF soldiers arrested Fadi Beyrouthi, one of the bodyguards of Sheikh al-Assir.”

    And what makes you think the LAF’s response was brutal? I haven’t read or watched anything that suggested this claim. What are your sources? Where are your claims coming from?

    Posted by gbeaino | June 24, 2013, 12:19 pm
  30. GBEAINO,

    I asume all these events “reported” happened in the South of Lebanon? An area in full control of Lebanese security forces and the LAF, whose reports can be trusted without fail, to take “immediate” action within hours of the reported incident within the South of Lebanon and namely, Sidon.

    I have not heard of eye witnesses to the original incident to condone and justify destroying an entire neighborhood in 24 hours and liquidate fellow Lebanese, no matter who they believe in, without first hearing them out.

    Fair?

    Posted by Whatever | June 24, 2013, 1:09 pm
  31. And no, I am not Ashraf Rifi.

    Posted by Whatever | June 26, 2013, 3:44 pm

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