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.