Surprising clashes took place this week between supporters of the Lebanese Sunni Cleric, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, and Lebanese security forces in Lebanon’s third largest city, Sidon. The fighting resulted in the deaths of at least 16 soldiers and 20 al-Assir supporters, in what the Associated Press noted has been the bloodiest fighting involving the Lebanese army since 2007. Here are a few news pieces that trace the events leading up to and following the fighting:
- An Al-Jazeera profile of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir indicates that the cleric was relatively unknown outside of his city of Sidon until 2012, when he gained national recognition through his fiery rhetoric against the Syrian regime and one of the regime’s supporters, the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah. Al-Jazeera further tied al-Assir’s rise with the lack of leadership in Lebanon’s Sunni community.
- A Foreign Policy Association blog post from November 2012 compares al-Assir to other Salafi Sunni sheikhs in Lebanon who are attempting to use the sectarian conflict in Syria to increase their political power. The post’s author, Alexander Corbeil, argues that al-Assir stands out among the other sheikhs due to his strong criticism of Hezbollah and Hezbollah’s arm caches around the country, which are issues that other Sunni groups in Lebanon refuse to address.
- About a week before the clashes, al-Assir’s supporters battled with Hezbollah members while attempting to uncover Hezbollah safe houses in Sidon, resulting in the death of a bystander. A day after the fighting, al-Assir vowed to find a “military” solution to Hezbollah safe houses in southern Lebanon.
- The clashes with the Lebanese army began on Sunday June 23 when the army stopped a car filled with al-Assir’s supporters at a checkpoint. The AFP reported that al-Assir responded to the clashes by releasing a video, stating: “We are being attacked by the Lebanese army,” al-Assir said, describing the military as “sectarian” and accusing it of supporting Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah. “I call on everyone… to cut off roads and to all honorable soldiers, Sunni and non-Sunni, to quit the army immediately,” al-Assir said in the message.”
- The fighting soon moved to a nearby complex that the Lebanese Army eventually stormed on Monday (6/24), which ended the clashes but did not result in the capture of al-Assir. The Lebanese Daily Star reported that 2 civilians died in the clashes, which trapped hundreds of residents for two days. On Tuesday the Army raided apartments in Sidon to try and locate al-Assir.
- Recent stories suggest that additional parties may have participated in the clashes. The online news site NOW Lebanon, which generally supports the Sunni March 14 Coalition, reported that the Lebanese army coordinated with Hezbollah-affiliated Resistance Brigades during the fighting. Meanwhile, McClatchy News reported that foreign fighters, including from the Syrian Sunni extremist group al-Nusra, joined the clashes in Sidon against the Lebanese military.
- The UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon expressed deep concern over the events in Lebanon and encouraged all citizens to remain loyal to the president and Lebanese armed forces. The main Sunni block in parliament, the March 14 Coalition, also condemned the attack and reiterated its loyalty to the state’s political and security institutions. The U.S. embassy in Beirut likewise condemned the clashes and expressed sympathy for the members of the Lebanese Armed Forces and the civilian bystanders killed in the violence.
- General Martin Dempsey, Commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Wednesday (6/26) that he has recommended in recent weeks to increase U.S. security assistance and arms sales to the Lebanese Armed Forces, to mitigate the fallout from the ongoing conflict in Syria.