Ahmed al-Assir, a Lebanese Sunni scholar, was sentenced to death last week for his role in the Battle of Sidon. In 2013, the two-day conflict between followers of the hard-line preacher and the Lebanese Army led to the deaths of nearly fifty people. Though capital punishment is legal in Lebanon, there have been no actual executions for over a decade. Al-Assir’s punishment is therefore highly significant, if it goes ahead.
The preacher has been pursued since 2014, when Lebanon’s judiciary issued an arrest warrant, on the grounds of him ‘forming an armed group with the objective of committing acts of terrorism and killing or attempting to kill Lebanese soldiers’. Prior to the outbreak of war in neighbouring Syria, al-Assir was ‘relatively unknown’, according to Al Jazeera’s Imtiaz Tyab. However, he soon became prominent through his ‘fiery speeches on TV criticizing Hezbollah for its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and praising the opposition’.
The Syrian War is key to understanding why violence has flared up in Lebanon over the past few years. Fighting has spilt over its borders and reignited historic sectarian divisions. Hezbollah, a Shia militant group based in Lebanon, pledge their support to the Syrian government. Sunni groups, by contrast, have sided with the rebels. These differences have been the catalyst for many years of sporadic yet deadly conflicts. Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war has led to ISIS carrying out a number of retaliatory attacks over the border. The worst of these was in November 2015, when a double suicide bomb attack in Beirut killed 43 and injured over 200. In addition to the violence and the re-ignition of old enmities, the Syrian Civil War has resulted in over 1 million refugees crossing over into Lebanon. This number represents nearly a quarter of the country’s population, and the Lebanese authorities are struggling to cope. The World Bank has predicted that the refugees will cost the country around $7.5 billion. The war in Syria has also allowed a flourishing arms trade across the border.
The Battle of Sidon – ‘one of the earliest and bloodiest spillovers into Lebanon’ (Imtiaz, Tyab, Al Jazeera) – was therefore simply part of a much wider crisis. It is difficult to see how this crisis can be solved. A peaceful solution to the Syrian War, the cause of most of Lebanon’s ills, is certainly far off. Efforts by the Lebanese government to stabilize the situation are unlikely to be particularly effective, either. In January 2015, the country implemented a restrictive visa system for Syrian refugees. However, that does not address the long-term issue of the million-plus Sunnis who have fled into the country: their presence will likely be the catalyst for future conflict. The Lebanese government will need to effectively rehouse these refugees within the country in order to prevent sectarian violence from spiralling out of control. This will undoubtedly be a monumental task, but a recent development has helped the situation. At the end of August, the Lebanese Army succeeded in forcing ISIS out of the country. Though irregular violence will likely continue, the removal of one of the barriers to peace in Lebanon is certainly a step in the right direction.
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