Fear and loathing spread across Syria's border
If Lebanon gets dragged into the Syrian conflict, the spark is likely to come from the streets of its northern city of Tripoli, where conspiracy theories and paranoia are fuelling tension
NOWHERE IN LEBANON are the tremors from its neighbour’s crisis more keenly felt than on Syria Street. In this run-down city lapped by the Mediterranean, the aptly named thoroughfare acts as a demarcation line between two of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city of Tripoli: one, Jabal Mohsen, rises up a hill from Syria Street and is home to the city’s 50,000-strong Alawite minority; the other, predominantly Sunni Bab Tabbaneh, spreads below. Animosities between the two teeming districts are not new – the area’s quarrels and much of its bullet-scarred masonry date back to the Lebanese civil war – but as the conflict in Syria has escalated, so too have the fear and loathing here between Alawites, coreligionists of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and Sunnis who support the uprising against him. Already split along sectarian lines and now divided over loyalty to regime or revolution in Syria, the rancour between Jabal Mohsen and Bab Tabbaneh mirrors what is happening over the border just a short drive away.
Jabal Mohsen’s crumbling buildings are draped with banners and posters praising Assad and his father, Hafez. In the warren of narrow streets that make up Bab Tabbaneh, the green, white and black flag of the Syrian opposition flutters from rooftops, and walls are daubed with graffiti denouncing Assad as a “dog” and “killer of children”. Many believe that if Lebanon gets dragged into the Syrian conflict the spark is likely to come from these densely populated streets.
While Lebanon’s Alawites, most of whom live in Tripoli, are a small minority, they are linked to a Damascus-backed alliance that includes the Shia factions Hizbullah and Amal, in addition to some Christian groupings.
“Lebanon is a fragile country,” says a local businessman. “People are worried that the fire could be lit here in Tripoli.”
The city, Lebanon’s second largest, has witnessed a series of Syria-related clashes this year that culminated in serious unrest last month. At least 25 people were killed as fighters in Jabal Mohsen and Bab Tabbaneh exchanged fire from rooftops, balconies and street corners. The Lebanese army deployed to the area and has remained there, its armoured vehicles stationed near dilapidated buildings where snipers from both sides sit and wait for the next outbreak of violence. Residents on both sides are sceptical of the army’s ability to maintain the peace. As in Syria, conspiracy theories and paranoia fuel the simmering tensions.
Sunnis accuse the Alawites of working with Damascus to stoke trouble as a means of drawing attention away from Syria’s crisis. Many recall Assad’s threat, as the revolt against him gathered pace, to set fire to the entire Middle East. Others believe the disturbances are a warning by pro-Assad elements to Sunnis against allowing Tripoli, where thousands of Syrian refugees have sought shelter and wounded rebels medical treatment, to become a hub for the Syrian opposition.
Alawites talk darkly of the rise of ultraconservative Salafism among the town’s Sunnis and claim such people want to establish an Islamic emirate in northern Lebanon. They also accuse Sunnis of arming and financing the Syrian opposition.
Caught in between are people such as Ebtehaj Salman, a widow in her 70s, whose apartment overlooks Bab Tabbaneh. Its windows and walls are pocked with more than 20 bullet holes – even the ceiling in her living room has been hit in recent months.
Her son, Fadi, who is visiting from Australia, urges me to seek shelter in the apartment as Bab Tabbaneh erupted with celebratory gunfire after news breaks on Wednesday afternoon of the Damascus bombing that killed several senior Syrian officials, including the defence minister and Assad’s brother-in-law. Some of the gunfire reaches Jabal Mohsen – at one stage we hear bullets strafing the roof – and it later transpires that a number of people in both districts were injured, two fatally.
“Why should we suffer because of what is happening in Syria?” asks Fadi as his mother sits crying next to him. He admits to buying a Kalashnikov for $1,200 after arriving in Tripoli last month, but he says he gave it away soon after. “I decided it was not for me, but I understand that people here feel they have to defend themselves.”
The family’s television is tuned to Syrian state TV. “That is where we can learn the true story,” says Fadi, who, while acknowledging that “terrible things” had happened in Syria, argues that Assad had been a good president before the uprising started.
Rifaat Eid, head of the main Lebanese Alawite faction, the Arab Democratic Party, goes further. Sitting in his office, which is packed with portraits of Bashar and Hafez al-Assad, in a heavily fortified compound in Jabal Mohsen, Eid declares he would do anything for the Syrian president, whom he last met six months ago. “I love him. If Bashar told me, ‘Rifaat, bring me the 50,000 Lebanese Alawites to fight for me,’ I would and I would be the first to fight. Bashar protects minorities like us. Our arms are more important to us than bread, because we are a minority. I believe in power. I don’t believe in democracy. This is the Middle East.”
Down in Bab Tabbaneh, a rotisserie owner turned militia leader who wears a chunky silver chain emblazoned with the Versace logo and gives his name as Abu Zakhur argues that the main problem is interference from pro-Assad elements coming from outside. “Kalashnikovs and M16s are the most you will find in our area, but in Jabal Mohsen they have weapons just like the ones the regime is using in Syria,” he says. “We believe there are also pro-Assad sleeper cells here that will emerge if it looks like Assad is about to go.”
Across the city, Sheikh Salem al-Rafei, a prominent Salafi cleric who has addressed protests in support of the Syrian uprising, says this is a dangerous time. “There are so many changes in Syria that are being felt in Tripoli. Bashar has tried to start a fire here. We don’t want the battle in Syria to come to Lebanon.”
Rafei’s weekly sermon at the local mosque, which attracts 3,000 people, usually deals with the Syrian crisis. “My message is that I want the West to stand with the Syrian people and not abandon them just because they are Muslims,” he says, adding that he would like to see a UN mission deployed to the border area in northern Lebanon, similar to the Unifil mission in the south.
The UN Security Council has raised concerns about cross-border attacks on Lebanon from Syria. In a statement earlier this week, it highlighted “repeated incidents of cross-border fire, incursions, abductions and arms trafficking across the Lebanese-Syrian border as well as other border violations” and urged Lebanon’s political leaders to maintain unity.
“The commitment of the country’s leaders to safeguarding Lebanon from the impact of regional tensions at this difficult time is particularly important,” it said.
Rafei says he has persuaded young men from Tripoli who were clamouring to fight with the rebel Free Syrian Army to change their minds. “I told them it was better for them to stay here than to go to Syria, because there are dangers here now, and we need Lebanon to stay as it is.” Like other Sunnis, much of Rafei’s ire is directed at Hizbullah. In a televised speech hours after Wednesday’s bombing in Damascus, its leader Hassan Nasrallah reiterated his support for the Assad regime and paid tribute to the dead Syrian officials.
“We tell the martyr leaders of Syria that the resistance is grateful for their support,” he said. “They were our colleagues in arms and our comrades in our conflict with the Israeli enemy. This army still has the capability and determination to continue and defeat all conspiracies.” Nasrallah sought to paint the Syrian uprising as a US and Israeli conspiracy to dislodge the Assad regime, which, he said, had supplied Hizbullah with crucial weaponry during its 2006 war with Israel.
“We are confident that the Syrian army, which has had to cope with the intolerable, has the ability, determination and resolve to endure and foil the enemies’ hopes,” Nasrallah said before renewing his call for dialogue between the Assad regime and opposition forces.
As the Syrian crisis has deepened, Hizbullah’s position of support for its benefactor in Damascus has drawn criticism across the region, even from Arabs who once lionised the organisation for its opposition to Israel. A source familiar with Hizbullah’s thinking rejected the suggestion that it now finds itself on the horns of a dilemma.
“We don’t believe we are on the wrong side of history because the Americans are on the other side. Syria is the number-one supporter of resistance movements in the region: why should it be brought down in this way?”
Such talk leaves Samer, a father of three from the restive Syrian border town of Talkalakh, cold. He fled with his family to Tripoli earlier this year after their town, one of the first to join anti-regime protests last year, endured months of attacks, including intensive shelling, by Syrian security forces. He tells stories of dodging pro-Assad snipers, of witnessing the tortured bodies of fellow residents and of seeing houses looted and burned. At one stage, he said, more than 240 army vehicles entered the 25,000-strong town.
Samer, his family and their friends were jubilant when they heard this week’s bombing in Damascus struck right at the heart of Assad’s security command structure. “This is a turning point,” he says. “We believe this is the beginning of the end for the regime. God willing, we will be back home in weeks.”