In Sidon earlier this week, followers of Salafi leader Ahmad al-Assir challenged the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), compelling the Army to put down the Assir movement once and for all. Or at least, that was the accepted narrative for the first day or so, until it started to become apparent that there was another element in the battle as well.
The fact is the LAF was not acting alone. On Monday, the Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar TV showed live footage of what appeared to be uniformed soldiers taking into custody fighters from Assir's group. As the captured Sunni militiamen were being marched away, the uniformed soldiers, as identified by the station's correspondent, could be heard shouting "Ya Zaynab" — a Shiite religious cry referencing Imam Ali's daughter.
This video was but one item among several which threw into sharp relief the real dynamic of what went down in Sidon. The version describing the episode as a clash between the LAF and the Assir group is as inaccurate as it is incomplete. In reality, there was a third protagonist: Hezbollah. In fact, the operation in Sidon was a preemptive power play by the Party of God. Using the LAF as cover, Hezbollah moved to eliminate what it considered a potential threat.
To be sure, the official line, as relayed by caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel is that “only the Lebanese Armed Forces took part” in the military operation. The fact is that the evidence of Hezbollah’s participation is irrefutable. For instance, there’s video footage and pictures of gunmen on the streets wearing yellow bands around their arms that identify them as Hezbollah. Wearing similar yellow armbands Hezbollah thugs assaulted and murdered activist Hashem Salman two weeks ago outside the Iranian embassy in broad daylight.
Reporters on the ground spoke with Hezbollah fighters as well as eyewitnesses who confirmed the party’s combat role in Sidon. MP Bahia Hariri explained that Hezbollah occupied a hill facing her house. More information emerged on Wednesday in a report from Al-Mustaqbal’s correspondent in the city, which provided a detailed picture of Hezbollah’s deployment during the fighting. Published death notices of Hezbollah fighters killed in action in Sidon round up the body of evidence.
If Hezbollah’s pervasive role is now established, what could have been its calculation going in? A close look at Hezbollah’s media organs might offer some answers. Of particular note is a piece by Nasser Charara in Al-Akhbar on Saturday, on the eve of the clashes. The article, “A simulation of a preemptive war to ‘quell sedition’,” proceeds to map out target areas – all Sunni – that Hezbollah’s leadership is monitoring closely. The list includes Tripoli, Tariq al-Jedideh in Beirut, Arsal, and the northern Beqaa, Naameh, and the coastal road south of Beirut, as well as “Sidon and Assir.” Charara pointed to the fighting the week before between Assir’s followers and Hezbollah and its “Resistance Brigades” around the apartments where the latter had set up shop. The incident, Charara relayed, “was considered [by Hezbollah] as a crossing of a red line.”
Sidon is a particularly sensitive geographical node, as it links southern Lebanon to Hezbollah’s Beirut stronghold. But the juxtaposition of “Sidon and Assir” alongside Arsal and Tripoli shows that the party views these areas as an extension of the Syrian battlefront. Publicizing that Hezbollah has already prepared military contingencies to deal with all of them also signals that the group, while seeking to project an image of total control and confidence, is also anxious about threats on the Lebanese front as it fights a critical, and costly, war in Syria.
Accordingly, over the last three months, pro-Hezbollah media has been zeroing in on the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, especially those that have seen an influx of refugees from Syria, as potential problems since they might serve as sources of logistical support for their Sunni adversaries. In Sidon in particular, the Assir phenomenon was viewed as a focal point that could draw elements from nearby Ain al-Hilweh and pose a bigger headache for Hezbollah down the road.
Therefore, it’s worth asking whether the operation in Sidon was indeed preemptive, as the Charara article presaged in Al-Akhbar. But, for a number of reasons, Hezbollah cannot simply go on an extended and sustained rampage against armed Sunnis in a series of cities and neighborhoods. The Shiite group needs a cover, one that would neutralize the reaction of its political adversaries. It appears to have found it in using the LAF as a front.
Perhaps Assir’s recklessness led him to allow an attempt to detain one of his followers on Sunday to escalate into a full-blown battle. He may also have been motivated by the widespread perception, especially in the Sunni community, that the Army is only deployed against Sunnis, often in line with the Party of God’s agenda, and never dares to go near Hezbollah thugs. But there’s also a possibility that Assir walked into a trap designed to draw in the LAF into a situation where it could not afford any outcome other than a clear victory.
What’s more, given how Assir’s movement is a troublesome, armed Salafi group, Hezbollah understood that the mainstream Sunni leadership would have no choice but to give full support to the LAF, even though Hezbollah’s hand in the fighting was obvious. Al-Akhbar’s editor laid out this calculation rather explicitly: “If they [March 14] choose to continue to bleed the army’s morale and authority in the current political polarization, then they are surely headed for an early political suicide.”
Hezbollah’s formula achieved its objectives in Sidon. However, with the LAF increasingly perceived as a biased force, cracking down exclusively on Sunnis, and allowing Hezbollah to flex its muscles on its back, the question now is how many more times can it be employed in this manner?
If Hezbollah intends to repeat this formula of putting the LAF in front, while deploying alongside it, in operations in other areas, like, say, Bourj al-Barajneh or Shatila, the potential consequences could be rather disastrous.
The Party of God is engaged in a decisive war in Syria and is trying to tighten its control on the domestic front, which it sees as an extension of the Syrian front. However, insofar as the group is using the Army as a cover, it will only exacerbate Sunni resentment and potentially stretch the LAF, and the country as a whole, to the breaking point.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.