The Middle East Channel

Lebanese Salafis amidst Syria's war

One recent cool and sunny afternoon in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli, Sheikh Bilal Baroudi, a Sunni Salafist cleric, showed me the charred remains of the Salam mosque. He was preaching there on Aug. 24 when a bomb detonated, killing dozens of worshippers. Only a few walls remained.

While a construction crew worked tirelessly that afternoon to rebuild the gutted building, Baroudi blamed the attack on a local group of Alawites who back the Alawite president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. He said his mosque -- as well as the Taqwa Salafist mosque in Tripoli, which was bombed that same August day -- had been targeted because members of both congregations support the insurgency in Syria. 

The Alawites are a minority sect with ties to the form of Shiism prevalent in Iran. They comprise a small portion of Lebanon's population of approximately 4.4 million people. The percentages of Shiites and Sunnis are not known and are a matter of speculation because the last census conducted in Lebanon was in 1932.

The small Alawite community of Tripoli, Lebanon's second-most important city, has long been at odds with the local Sunnis. And soon after the Syrian uprising began, clashes broke out in the mountainous areas to the north of the city, between the Alawite-dominated neighborhood Jabal Mohsen and the Sunni-dominated Bab al-Tabbaneh.

"The Syrian regime wants to transport the conflict to us here," Baroudi told me that day. For him, as well as many other Sunnis I have met in this part of Lebanon, the twin bombings of the Tripoli mosques last summer were intended to heighten sectarian tensions. Baroudi told me Assad's regime was trying to foment violence by convincing local Shiite groups that the Sunnis were out to get them -- and then supplying them with explosives.

Whether or not this is true, there is no doubt that the sectarian divide in Lebanon has indeed been widening. Just this week, two explosions hit the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, in suicide attacks for which Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a Lebanese Sunni group with links to al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility.

The struggle to dislodge Assad has disturbed an unwritten social contract among Lebanon's many sects. The country secured a fragile peace after enduring a civil war from 1975 to 1990. Syria occupied Lebanon from 1976 until 2005, when it withdrew only due to international pressure. Syria has had a longstanding claim on Lebanon; during the Ottoman era, Lebanon was part of Greater Syria.

But stability has been increasingly difficult to maintain since Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement backed by Iran, has actively supported Assad financially and militarily, including fighting alongside his troops inside Syria.

The war next door is also inspiring distorted ideas. Baroudi and other Salafists accuse the United States of enabling the Shiites to stay in power in Syria. Some of the Salafists in Tripoli point to President Barack Obama's historic call to the newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, as well as talks on Iran's nuclear program, as evidence that the U.S. government is now backing Iran in the Middle East.

According to Baroudi, Washington "can no longer fight wars directly," and needs Tehran "to take on this role." And there is no ally "more loyal or more successful or more powerful" than Iran "to force the region into submission, weaken the Sunni, and extort the Gulf."

In October, in Bab al-Tabbaneh, one Salafist sheikh -- who wished to remain unidentified out of concern for his safety -- complained that even as the U.S. government had become less critical of Hezbollah because of warming ties with Iran, it readily condemned Sunni extremists. He did not respond when I reminded him that Washington considers Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization.

Such misperceptions have a radicalizing effect. And many Lebanese academics, journalists, and officials I have spoken with over the last year believe that is precisely what Assad had hoped for: It bolsters the argument that his regime, no matter how brutal, is a better option than any Sunni-led government.

"Assad wants to make the Syrian revolution not one of people against Assad, but one of Shiite-Sunni strife," Ali Amin, a journalist at Al Balad newspaper in Beirut and an expert on sectarianism, told me.

If this is indeed Assad's strategy, it appears to be working. Western governments, as well as Russia and Iran, seem to be scrambling to maintain stability in the region by negotiating a settlement with Assad that would leave his regime intact. They are hoping to hold negotiations in Geneva in December.

Some Sunnis in Lebanon, perceiving the U.S. government to be endorsing the status quo in Syria, are feeling more threatened, and are increasingly ready to take up arms to fight for their survival. Such feelings of anger and desperation could be the motivation behind this week's attack on the Iranian Embassy and future violence inside Lebanon, which undoubtedly would end Lebanon's fragile social contract.

One consequence of this assessment -- however misguided -- is that while progress toward a deal over Iran's nuclear program would calm minds in the West, it would unnerve many Sunnis in the Middle East. Their main concern is the Shiites' increasing influence, with Iran as their protector.

As perceptions of Iran's growing power increase among the Sunnis, it is imperative for the United States to send a signal to the region that it is not taking sides in the sectarian conflict, which certainly will continue.

Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Middle East Program at the Stimson Center, is the author of The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Shi'a-Sunni Divide.


The Middle East Channel

Iranian nuclear talks continue with no sign of a deal

Talks between Iran and six world powers have continued into Friday with no sign of a deal. EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton spent much of Thursday meeting with Iranian officials working on a deal for a temporary suspension of the country's nuclear program. Though Thursday's discussions ended without a breakthrough, Ashton described the talks as "intense" and "substantial." Another official acknowledged the negotiations, which are likely to extend over the weekend, are "going slowly" but noted that it would be wrong to read too much into that. Iranian officials said they felt progress had been made. U.S. President Barack Obama has said the United States could provide between $6 billion and $7 billion in sanctions relief as part of a deal. However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he was prepared to move ahead with legislation next month to intensify sanctions.  


Fierce fighting over a Syrian military base in the opposition-held northeast city of Raqqa has killed an estimated 24 rebel fighters. Opposition forces launched an assault on Base 17, but government troops have reportedly maintained control of the complex. Outside the city of Aleppo, an estimated 15 pro-government militiamen were killed in clashes with Islamist factions, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Nusra Front, over the regime-held Base 80. In efforts to counter a recent government offensive and battlefield gains, Islamist groups are calling for unification. ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adani al-Shami said, "We call for all jihadist leaders and soldiers and people to accelerate in joining the project." Meanwhile, six other Islamist groups including Liwa al-Tawhid, Ahrar al-Sham, the Army of Islam, Suqour al-Sham, Liwa al-Haq, and the Ansar al-Sham battalions have reportedly merged. The United States is continuing to push for a peace conference in Geneva, and is urging Syria's main opposition coalition to select people who might be able to form a transition government. The United States hopes determining an acceptable alternative will convince Russia to drop support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

  • Isaac Herzog has defeated Shelly Yacimovich to become the leader of Israel's main opposition Labor party vowing to reclaim the premiership.
  • The Egyptian government has given police the authority to enter university campuses to breakup protests after a student was killed in clashes overnight at al-Azhar University.
  • Saudi Arabia reported six mortar shells hit an uninhabited desert area near the borders with Iraq and Kuwait.
  • Saudi religious police have arrested two men in the capital Riyadh for offering free hugs to passersby accusing them of indulging in exotic practices and offending public order.
  • Severe storms this week have killed an estimated 18 people across the Arabian Peninsula. 

Arguments and Analysis

'Leap of Faith: Israel's National Religious and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict' (International Crisis Group)

"In the view of the international community and others invested in the peace process, the national religious constitute a powerful obstacle to peacemaking. Their current electoral strength and influence in state institutions -- and now within the governing coalition -- are unprecedented. Their admixture of religion and politics vexes those whose sense of politics and negotiation are based in the here-and-now. What is perceived as their maximalist demands -- seen by many as tantamount to a call for Palestinian surrender -- and doctrinally-dictated inflexibility make them seem implacable and unwilling to compromise. Once this group was in opposition to the Israeli government because of what it saw as foot-dragging over settlement activity; later, as momentum gathered behind a two-state solution, it was cast as a spoiler; today its representatives sit around the cabinet table. What hope then for peace?

Yet viewed from within the national-religious community, the picture looks quite different. While outsiders see them as united and powerful, they themselves are acutely aware of their internal fragmentation and of having failed to convince non-observant Israeli Jews to put an end to the Oslo process. Indeed, with the disengagement followed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's imposition of a (partial) ten-month settlement construction freeze and acceptance, albeit conditional, of a two-state solution, it sometimes seems to them that the partition of the Land of Israel is all but a done deal. National-religious figures enjoyed electoral success in 2013, but large parts of their constituency now are realising this resulted from putting forward a pragmatic face regarding matters of religion and state and allying with avowedly secular forces."

'The Good News Out of Yemen' (Nabeel Khoury, Cairo Review of Global Affairs)

"The good news is on several fronts. A group of donor countries, known as the Friends of Yemen (the Gulf Cooperation Council, plus EU, the UN and the U.S.), just concluded a meeting in New York, with a reaffirmation of pledges of assistance and renewed vigilance over the transition process in what is arguably the poorest and least developed of the Arab countries. Eight billion dollars have been pledged by the Friends of Yemen, and an executive bureau has, at least in principle, been established to oversee and coordinate how the assistance is disbursed. Closer to home, the U.S. government has seriously upped its civilian assistance and promised to support the ND process politically and financially. So what is the catch?

The National Dialogue, expertly and patiently chaperoned by the UN special envoy, Jamal Benomar, was supposed to produce a new constitution for Yemen, to be followed by a referendum and elections. The process has now gone into overtime, ostensibly to allow the drafters time to refine the finished product. In reality, the time is needed to iron out serious differences that remain between northern and southern delegates to the ND. Secessionist sentiment in the south remains strong and even the moderates among them are only willing to accept a federated union if the south remains unified as a large component of the whole, with an option to secede at a future date should a plebiscite indicate that that remains the strong wish of the people of the south. The north and south of Yemen have already fought a civil war in 1994 over this question, with the north prevailing in that conflict. The secessionist sentiment has not disappeared but rather simmered on a slow burner, flaring up again during the uprising in 2011. North of Sanaa, the Zaidi Houthis, who have accepted to stay in the union, are facing an amalgam of Salafi Islamists, including odd bedfellows from the mainstream Islah party and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. These regional issues are the main obstacles facing the National Dialogue, and are far more serious than a mere refinement of the language of the final document."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber