On a recent day, baffled motorists honked their horns and veered around the blocked entrance to a major street in Sidon. Now Lebanon's third-largest city, Sidon was once a flourishing Phoenician city-state on the Mediterranean.
The street was closed off by Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmad Assir, who erected a small tent encampment in protest against the country's most powerful military and political force, the militant Islamist group Hezbollah.
A once little-known cleric, Assir has risen to prominence recently with his public challenges of Hezbollah, which itself arose to resist the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Some observers believe it has the most powerful nonstate armed forces in the Middle East.
The Shiite militant group is now threatened by the potential demise of one of its main allies, the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad. Its dilemma shows the effects of the Syrian conflict on the region, and could reshape Lebanon's political landscape.
Hezbollah has a large arsenal of mostly Iranian weapons, including thousands of rockets and missiles, which it says it needs to defend Lebanon against Israeli attacks. Assir says that Hezbollah should surrender its weapons to the Lebanese army, and let it do the job.
"Who gave Hezbollah a carte blanche to defend our state?" he says on a recent day, speaking in an air-conditioned trailer within his encampment.
"We want this discussion to be within the framework of the Lebanese national defense strategy," he adds. "We're not calling for the resistance against Israel to be neutralized. We just believe that our defense will be stronger if we discuss this as part of the national defense strategy."
Syrian Conflict Squeezes Hezbollah
Assir, his eyes fixed in a stern gaze, wears a long robe with a long beard and close-cropped mustache in the Salafi Muslim style. He grew up during the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War, and he says that to avoid another one, neither Sunni nor Shiite Lebanese should arm themselves.
The issue of resisting Israel, he says, is actually a distraction from Hezbollah's real goal, which he says is helping Iran realize its regional ambitions.
"The Iranians have come into Lebanon under the pretext of the Palestinian issue and Islamic unity," he says. "They're not really motivated by these issues. What they're really after is regional hegemony."
Hezbollah has refrained from responding directly to the sheik's challenge; it has been focusing on the Syrian crisis.
If the regime of Assad falls, Hezbollah would not only lose a major backer — it would lose a conduit for Iranian arms and a refuge in case of Israeli attacks. A weakened Hezbollah could also lose its Druze and Christian coalition partners, and with them, its majority in the Lebanese Parliament.
Randa Slim, of the Washington, D.C.-based Middle East Institute, says Hezbollah's real problem is that its support for the Syrian government hurts its popularity, and makes its claim to represent oppressed peoples ring hollow. And since the so-called Arab Spring, she says, its message no longer resonates with Arabs, who are focused on building more modern and democratic governments.
"Hezbollah right now is at a very vulnerable stage," Slim says. "Regionally, its resistance narrative is out of sync with the priorities that most Arabs now are focusing on, having to do with nation-building, writing new constitutions, building effective state institutions."
Arab attention could, of course, shift back to foreign policy issues if other regional conflicts flare up, Slim points out.
Tug Of War Continues
Assir denies that he is exploiting Hezbollah's current vulnerability to push for it to disarm, but Slim says that the sheik was successful in tapping "into a reservoir of Sunni anger in Lebanon."
For now, at least, Hezbollah is keeping up its rhetorical bluster. In a recent speech, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah dismissed the effort to disarm his group as a U.S.-Israeli plot.
He argues that even if Hezbollah were to turn its weapons over to the Lebanese army, the army couldn't protect the weapons from Israeli airstrikes. And if it's weapons the Lebanese want, Nasrallah says, he knows just where to get some.
"Do you want a strong Lebanon?" he asks. "We are ready to go to Iran and bring back weapons just like ours. Then we will have a strong army and a strong resistance, and that is how we will protect our country."
Lebanon's prime minister and other leaders promised Assir they would talk with Hezbollah about surrendering its weapons. The sheik relented and dismantled his tents on Aug. 1. Hezbollah then said it would hang on to its weapons.
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