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Lebanon's New Wild Card: Shaker al-Barjawi?

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The handwriting had been on the wall for weeks, signaling that Lebanon might explode -- at any minute.

The reason was Syria. For more than a year, battlelines have been clearly drawn between pro-Bashar al-Assad and anti-Assad politicians in Lebanon, with the March 14 Alliance desperate to see regime change in Syria, and Hezbollah and its allies willing to fight until curtain-fall with Syrian officialdom.

On Arabic satellite talk shows, members of the two camps had blasted at each other for months, once even getting into a fist-fight live on air.

Last week, pro-Syrian regime and anti-Syrian regime factions clashed with arms in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, prompting Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to advise their citizens from traveling to Lebanon, and calling on those already in the country to leave.

On Sunday, Sheikh Ahmad Abdul Wahed, a prominent Sunni cleric affiliated with ex-prime minister Saad al-Hariri, was shot dead at a checkpoint in Akkar in northern Lebanon, along with his bodyguard, when his car reportedly failed to stop at a military checkpoint.

The cleric was heading to the city of Halba to participate in a sit-in against the Syrian regime, staged by Hariri's Future Movement.

By nightfall, angry young men were burning tires in protest, cutting off main roads including the main road leading to the Syrian capital Damascus. Similar scenes were repeated in the Eastern Bekka Valley, Akkar and in Beirut itself.

Two more people were killed and another 18 wounded. Gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades and live ammunition in the mainly Sunni district of Tarik al-Jadideh. The fighting was between Hariri loyalists and the pro-Syria Arab Movement Party, headed by Shaker al-Barjawi, whom March 14 accuses of being a proxy for Hezbollah and the Syrians.

Whoever ordered the shooting -- if the attack was indeed staged and not an accident -- knew perfectly well that it would have a dramatic impact on the country's already boiling sectarian tensions.

Lebanese Sunnis are frustrated, to say the least, by a Sunni prime minister, Najib Mikati, who many believe can no longer deliver, thanks to the Tripoli and Akkar disturbances.

Members of the Hariri team accuse of him of being a pawn in the hands of Hezbollah. Although Mikati has pledged neutrality in the Syrian crisis, many believe that if one scratches beneath the surface, he remains pro-Syria, which adds to the already tense relationship between him and his predecessor, Saad al-Hariri.

All of that is fairly clear, and follows a constant theme in Lebanese politics, between pro-Syria and anti-Syria politicians, which has been the talk of the town since 2005.

Nothing unusual or strange about that, and if one traces Lebanese events in recent years, such clashes are occasional and do not snowball into another civil war -- if they are not fanned by outside parties from both camps.

The wild card in the complex Lebanese scene, however, is Shaker al-Barjawi, a veteran of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) who seemingly emerged out of nowhere and is now on everybody's radar.

He has all the credentials needed to lead a Sunni militia that could serve as Hezbollah's proxy in Lebanese domestics. Little is known about Barjawi beyond the narrow web of Beiruti politics, apart from the fact that he is a staunch supporter of the Syrian regime. His Arab Movement Party is by no means a political heavyweight, certainly no match to established parties like the Phalange of Amin Gemayel, the Marada of Suleiman Franjiyeh or Hariri's Future Bloc.

How then did it rise out of nowhere to take the streets of Beirut, reminding the Lebanese of a haunting scene back in May 2008, when Hezbollah and Hariri's loyalists clashed in Beirut?

Then, Hezbollah took the Lebanese capital in a matter of hours, disarming Hariri's men and igniting public outrage from Lebanese Sunnis. Their declared aim was sabotaging an attempt by then-prime minister Fouad al-Siniora at damaging its telecommunications network at Beirut Airport.

Probably because of that incident, and the outrage and fear that it triggered among Lebanese Sunnis, Shi'ite Hezbollah might have reasoned that it was better to create a Sunni proxy to do the job for it, should similar disturbances arise in the future. Barjawi's moment of glory arose last weekend, after the Abdul Wahed killing and the trouble in Akkar.

Who is Shaker al-Barjawi?

Shaker al-Barjawi, aged 51, grew up under the influence of his father, a customs official who was one of the founders of the Lebanese branch of the Ba'ath Party, which was established in Syria in 1947.

At one point, he was loyal to the Iraqi branch of the Ba'ath, and according to the Doha-based al-Jazeera TV, fought alongside the Iraqi army briefly during its eight year war with Iran in the 1980s.

Then, there was nothing but bad blood between him and Damascus, due to historic rivalries between the Syrian and Iraqi Ba'ath. His nom du guerre was Abu Baker (named after the first caliph of Islam who succeeded Prophet Mohammad in 631) -- a historical figure who is loathed by Muslim Shi'ites and the mullahs of Tehran.

After the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, al-Barjawi parted ways with the Iraqi Ba'ath after Saddam Hussein began building bridges with then-Lebanese president Amin Gemayel.

He briefly affiliated himself with a Lebanese Muslim cleric named Abdu Hafiz Qasem, famed for his inflammatory speeches against Gemayel at the mosques of Tarik al-Jadideh.

He found common ground with the Syrians when they began working against Gemayel's short-lived peace treaty with Israel, befriending Amal Movement's Nabih Berri (the current speaker of parliament) and Walid Jumblatt (who was pro-Syria until 2005).

Berri and Gemayel tried to prop him up as a local Sunni chieftain in Beirut, hoping that he would replace then-leader Ibrahim Quleilat, who was close to Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat.

Barjawi cuddled up to Arafat, which strained his relations with Damascus and Amal, traveling to Tunis to meet the Palestinian leader in 1991. After which, according to al-Jazeera, he was arrested and jailed in Syria, only to be released by Jumblatt and then-Lebanese defense minister Muhsen Daloul, who lobbied on his behalf with Syrian officials.

Thanks to Syria's paramount influence in Lebanon in the 1990s, Barjawi mended his relations with Damascus, setting up the Arab Movement Party to softly challenge the policies of then-prime minister Rafik al-Hariri.

During this time, he established close ties with Hezbollah, despite his previous rivalries with Iran and strong Sunni tendencies.

Speaking to Lebanon's Assafir newspaper in 2008, Barjawi admitted all his political acrobats, saying that they were due to a "lack of proper judgment," claiming that his prime objective was "defending Beirut and its residents."

He denies that he is on the payroll of Hezbollah. Although Hezbollah has been remarkably silent about the recent developments, Barjawi has been very vocal, saying that Hariri's Future Movement had opened a Pandora's box, "especially after it killed two members of the Arab Movement in cold blood" [during Monday's clashes].

He added that "a hundred thousand bullets were shot within hours and four-wheel vehicles came [from Saad al-Hariri's residence in downtown Beirut] carrying ammunition."

Future Bloc member of parliament Ahmad Fatfat, an ally of Hariri, denied the charges, claiming the Hariri's team "was not part of any security clashes."

Fatfat's version of the story was the following: "There was an attempt to control the streets by Barjawi. The residents of Tarik al-Jadideh surrounded Barjawi's office and defended themselves until 3 am. Hezbollah intervened militarily to save Barjawi and the members who were with him."

Fatfat called on Prime Minister Mikati and Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn to resign after the latest disturbances.

We don't know for sure who killed Sheikh Abdul Wahed. Was it purely an accident, as the Lebanese army is saying? Or was it planned and orchestrated by pro-Syria Lebanese figures, as March 14 is saying?

What we do know, however, is that a new chapter has been opened in Lebanese politics -- which perhaps will outlive the Syrian uprising itself -- and the man to watch will be Shaker al-Barjawi.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian university professor, historian, and editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria. This article appeared in Asia Times Online on May 22, 2012.