Just as with the Nusra Front in Syria, there has been an exaggeration of the clout of Sheikh Ahmad Assir in Lebanon. Assir has received wide-scale media attention because his extremism is attractive for televisions and satellite stations, which have raced to talk to him. This is because of his strange appearance and long, flowing beard, which attract attention irrespective of the content involved.
The Syrian regime allowed the earliest members of the Nusra Front to flee from prison less than a year after the Syrian uprising broke out; they gathered in a village in rural Idlib when there were only around 80 of them in total. The group’s close relationship with the Islamic State of Iraq, which also enjoyed support from Syrian intelligence, allowed it to gradually grow in number. It benefited from military expertise gained in Iraq, along with money and equipments, until it was able to take part in the fighting in Syria. In parallel, there was a media campaign by regime supporters about the growth of al-Qaeda and other extremists in the ranks of the Syrian rebels. This was an attempt to convince western countries that the regime was fighting terror and not opponents who wanted to topple the regime, and achieve reform and change. These Islamist extremists received heavy coverage by the media, at the expense of the rebel Free Syrian Army and secular members of the opposition.
At the beginning of 2013, Syrian President Bashar Assad told his Lebanese allies quite clearly: “We have succeeded in putting al-Qaeda at the forefront of the ongoing war, and western countries are reluctant about supporting the rebels.”
In Lebanon, Assir’s appearance in 2011 coincided with Hezbollah’s need to see the emergency of Sunni sectarian phenomena, which would prove that leadership of the community did not lie with Saad Hariri after he was forced out of the prime minister’s post through pressures – in which Hezbollah used the threat of force – at the beginning of the year.
All of the print and visual media outlets in the orbit of Syria’s allies and Hezbollah in Lebanon rushed to run exclusive interviews with Assir, despite his harsh criticism of Hezbollah and the party's weapons. The goal was to hint that the Assir phenomenon was pulling the rug out from under the Hariri family and its political leadership, as the leader of the Future Movement was outside the country. Hariri’s leadership, in this argument, was weakening and disappearing. This was to justify the political exclusion of Hariri’s political current, as the Future Movement was mocked and ignored, even by the leaders of Hezbollah.
Even some state security bodies in which Hezbollah wields influence showed openness to Assir, and perhaps benefited from the phenomenon.
There were those who were enchanted by this phenomenon, which had similar manifestations in other parts of Lebanon; their voices were rising in tone, as a result of the growing sectarian sensitivity and tension caused by Hezbollah’s control over political life. These individuals were unconcerned by seeing a handful of extremists ruin the image of the moderate majority.
On the contrary, they armed themselves with the fact that part of Hariri’s base turned away from peaceful politics and some moved in the direction of Assir, because of his strange appearance, considering him a spokesperson for the feelings of anger at Hezbollah. Some supporters of Hezbollah and its allied media began to claim that the moderate Sunni majority was actually doing what the extremist minority was engaged in. They began to accuse this majority of being the “incubating environment” for Assir and others like him, to justify to themselves that the moderates were being swept along by the rage of the extremists. The same thing was done by the regime in Syria, as it justifies its violence and crimes against the Syrian people, the moderate opposition and the Free Syrian Army, and its destruction of cities and villages and committing of massacres and using chemical weapons – all in the name of fighting the terror of the Nusra Front.
Assir, finally, went out of control and his extremism could no longer be used soundly. He engaged in the unaccustomed-to cursing of leading political figures, such as Speaker Nabih Berri and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah. Assir became an armed political figure, just like any extremist current animated by fanaticism. Around him gathered an angry rabble and it became necessary to do away with him, after he became blinded by his delusions, committing the crime of attacking the Lebanese army.
Even when it became necessary to get rid of him, he remained a means and an excuse to attack Hezbollah’s political rivals for their moderation. This was even though Assir, toward the end, began to engage in incitement against Hariri and accuse him of treason and running away from the confrontation in Lebanon, to outside the country, and to political deal-making, etc. Hezbollah took part in the fighting against Assir although the army handled the task of ending his insurrection, and is pursuing his other followers and terrorizing them. It will continue to do so, even after the Assir phenomenon is over, for reasons that have nothing to do with the radical sheikh.