As Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah was talking about the strength of the Resistance during a televised speech Tuesday night, the streets of the Bourj Abi Haidar neighborhood in Beirut exploded into armed violence between Al-Ahbash and Hezbollah fighters.
It is ironic that while Hezbollah militants were fighting in the streets, Nasrallah said that Hezbollah fears foreign intelligence services would use the electricity protests to trigger clashes to drag the country into “a situation it cannot handle.” He called on the Lebanese people to remain calm and not be dragged into fights, and yet that’s exactly what his party members failed to do in Bourj Abi Haidar.
But this time, the fighting was not the usual March 8 vs. March 14. Hezbollah, alone, was fighting Al-Ahbash, a pro-Syrian Sunni faction that describes itself as a charitable organization promoting Islamic culture. That the fighting erupted among people from the same “family” raised a number of questions and concerns.
Al-Ahbash, which enjoyed a level of political power during the period of Syria’s hegemony in Lebanon, was greatly weakened after the Syrian army withdrew in 2005. Furthermore, it lost its Sunni support base when two of its officials, Mahmoud Abdel Aal and his brother Ahmad, were suspected of being involved in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But it seems the events of May 7, 2008 opened the door for the group to rework the Sunni street to its advantage by filling the gap left by Hariri’s Future Movement. And now, with Syria in the ascendency in Lebanon, Al-Ahbash is feeling punchy.
Although no one really knows for sure what sparked this week’s clashes, it is becoming more and more obvious they boiled down to a fight between pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian factions, highlighting the recent cooling in the relations between Damascus and Hezbollah following the recent Syrian-Saudi-Lebanese summit in Beirut.
Thus, the clashes must be seen as a message from Syria to Hezbollah that Damascus is back and that the Party of God no longer single-handedly controls the political scene in Lebanon. It is also worth mentioning that this happened immediately after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that he would visit Lebanon on September 11 and 12.
Using a Sunni militia to deliver the message is interesting, as Syria might also be sending another message to the Saudis and Prime Minister Saad Hariri that it can protect the Lebanese Sunnis. As for the international community, Syria was clearly telling it that it can hurt Hezbollah, and that it should be given back Lebanon as a reward.
If that is what happened, then the implications are indeed dangerous. The Lebanese in general and the Sunnis in particular are being given two options: Hezbollah’s control or the return of Syrian hegemony. This means that the Lebanese have to pay for the Syrian-Iranian alliance and for when this alliance weakens.
In any case, Hezbollah got the message. The day after the clashes, Al-Ahbash officials went to Damascus to meet senior Syrian general and former head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon Rustum Ghazali, a clear indication that Syria sponsors and controls Al-Ahbash. Of course, this does not mean that Syria and Iran are no longer allies. When Imad Mugniyah was assassinated in Damascus, Hezbollah had to bite its tongue and accuse Israel of the killing, even though many laid the blame on the Syrian regime, claiming Mugniyah had been killed to sever the tie linking Hezbollah to the Hariri assassination.
However, the danger lies among the Sunnis, who, whether they are pro- or anti-Syrian, sympathized with Al-Ahbash because it was able to confront and bloody up Hezbollah. The pro-Syrian faction played on the urge for revenge because it knows that the memory of 2008 is still painful and that the feelings of sectarian hatred did not disappear with the Doha conference. The tension is still palpable and can be further exploited.
The chances of more clashes are high, especially with Hezbollah’s campaign against the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) in the months before indictments are expected to be handed down to its members for their alleged role in the Hariri assassination. There are also fears that the sectarian violence in Iraq might move to Lebanon, as the Iranians and Syrians are in disagreement regarding the formation of the government there.
However, this time, unlike in May 2008, Hezbollah found itself alone in facing the Sunni street. The Amal Movement was nowhere to be seen, a fact that Parliament Speaker and Amal Movement head Nabih Berri was at pains to point out.
This highlights another significant fact: Hezbollah’s arms, which were allegedly not used during the May events, were most definitely put to use in the Bourj Abi Haidar clashes, and this is a clear violation of both the Doha Accord and the statement resulting from the Saudi-Syrian-Lebanese summit.
Instead of recognizing the consequences and making serious changes to its political rhetoric, Hezbollah insisted on describing the clashes as an “individual incident” with no political connotations, a clear indication that the party will not change its tone or its campaign against the tribunal. In fact, the Bourj Abi Haidar clashes demonstrated that the Lebanese scene is ready to explode at any moment and that the recent calmness fostered by the Beirut summit this summer is very vulnerable and can collapse in the smallest of neighborhoods.
The streets are now full of rage. The death and destruction will only lead to more anger and the need for revenge. The problem of Hezbollah’s illegitimate arms still remains, but now we know once and for all that the Resistance’s arms can be used on the street against other Lebanese, whether to defend its arsenal, as was the case in May 2008, or to confront another militia over who controls Beirut’s streets.
If the problem of arms is not resolved soon, the clashes will increase, and the rule of the militia will prevail.
The gangs of Beirut
The young man wearing a pink Armani T-shirt stops his moped in front of a building and looks at the poster announcing that his childhood friend, 19-year-old Fawaz Omeirat, had perished the night before in the clashes between rival gangs in the Bourj Abi Haidar neighborhood of Beirut.
The young man says he’s 20 but doesn’t want to give his name because “everybody knows everybody around here.” He tells NOW Lebanon that he woke up in the morning to wash the blood from the stairs of the building. “It was all over the place. Some armed men came last night during the fight with a wounded man and knocked at the door. But we were too afraid to open. We didn’t know them. We couldn’t tell who was who in the fighting,” he explains and sits down on the same stairs he washed a few hours earlier.
He says he is one of the many young men who took to the streets on Tuesday night as Shia Hezbollah supporters clashed with Sunni inhabitants of the neighborhood after a quarrel in front of a mosque belonging to the pro-Syrian Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, also known as Al-Ahbash. Three people died in the clashes, including local Hezbollah official Mohammad Fawwaz, his bodyguard and a 19-year-old Lebanese Kurd, reportedly a member of Al-Ahbash. The fighting took place as Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech calling for increased military assistance for the Lebanese army from Iran and its Arab neighbors.
“My friend had nothing to do with the fight. He was just shot for being on the street,” the young man tells NOW Lebanon. “It was all the Sunni boys in the neighborhood who fought back when we were attacked by armed men.” The young man says he used to support the Future Movement, but now, like many other young people in the neighborhood, doesn’t support any party. “What happened was not political. We just defended ourselves,” he adds.
A day after the clashes, Bourj Abi Haidar is like a beehive. The four army tanks parked at the corner near the mosque cut off the narrow street and cause a traffic jam. Women in groups of four or five talk loudly, expressing worry about what happened the night before. Men sitting on balconies scan the area’s buildings. The place is filled with journalists searching out interviews, as the majority-Sunni neighborhood gets ready for Omeirat’s funeral. LAF soldiers deployed in the area are anxious that a new incident might break out during the ceremony.
Al-Ahbash media officer Abdul Kader Fakhani desperately seeks out shade in the sweltering heat of the afternoon and wipes his forehead. “We don’t know what happened last night. We were attacked. That’s for sure,” he says.
The incident started 10 minutes before a charity Iftar organized by Al-Ahbash was set to start in the group’s Bourj Abi Haidar mosque. “We had everybody here: Amal people, Hezbollah officials, our leaders. It was nothing political, and it’s got no regional impact. It was just a local, one-time incident,” Fakhani says.
According to Fakhani, it all started with a minor car accident while the Al-Ahbash security were trying to find a way to park all the guests’ cars in front of the mosque. “All we know is that there was this man with his family in a car, and he bumped into one of the cars parked here. He left, and in 10 minutes we were raided,” he says. Al-Ahbash is trying to find out, together with Hezbollah and the Lebanese army, who was responsible for the escalation of the quarrel into street clashes, he says. “We have surveillance cameras, and we’ll find out soon enough what happened.”
But the people on the streets are talking about more sinister motives behind the fighting. “They had a lot of weapons for it not to be political or sectarian,” one man tells NOW Lebanon. “There were snipers all around on the buildings. It was awful,” a woman says before rushing away to her house.
The young man sitting on the stairs is not aware of what exactly started the fight, but he knows what happened after. “We heard noises and people arguing, and we came out to see what happened. Then we saw a group of men with guns coming from Fathallah [a nearby Shia neighborhood] and they started to shoot. Not in the air, but directly at people. We were scared. We started to drag the women from the streets into the buildings to take shelter. We had 60 people in our house here,” he says.
“The army? They came at around 11.30, stopped over there at the corner of the building and used a microphone to tell people to stop shooting. And then a B7 hit their car, so they left immediately.”
He believes that for now the violence is over, but he’s sure it’s going to start again, just hopefully not in the near future. “It’s always like that here. Anything can start a fight; a clash can start in a second. There’s still very much hatred between Sunni and Shia,” he says while he hurries outside to attend his friend’s funeral. Hundreds of people in the neighborhood begin pouring from their houses onto the street. “Allahu Akbar!” the men start shouting while the coffin is taken out of the building and carried toward the mosque.