Syrian conflict spills over onto streets of Tripoli in Lebanon

Thu, Jul 19, 2012, 01:00

Simmering sectarian tensions in Alawite and Sunni areas mirror fight across border in Syria, writes MARY FITZGERALD

THE RAT-tat-tat of gunfire echoed across Tripoli’s aptly named Syria Street as news broke of the bomb attack in neighbouring Syria that killed Syria’s defence minister, the deputy defence minister who was also President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law; and the head of the security force’s crisis management team, who was also an assistant to the vice-president.

Syria Street divides two impoverished neighbourhoods in this dilapidated city: one, Jabal Mohsen, rises up from Syria Street and is home to Tripoli’s 50,000 Alawites; the other, predominantly Sunni, Bab Tabbaneh, teems below.

Their allegiances are obvious. In Jabal Mohsen, huge posters praising Assad and his father Hafez, co-religionists of the district’s residents, hang from crumbling buildings. In the narrow warren of streets that make up Bab Tabbaneh, the green, black and white flag adopted by the Syrian opposition flies from rooftops and walls are daubed with anti-Assad graffiti.

Many Lebanese believe that if Syria’s crisis engulfs their country, the spark will come from here in these densely populated streets. The area, whose sectarian tensions date back to the Lebanese civil war, has witnessed a series of Syria-related clashes this year that culminated in fierce fighting in June. At least 25 people were killed as the two sides exchanged fire from rooftops, balconies and street corners.

The Lebanese army was deployed in the area and their armoured vehicles remain a constant presence since.

Yesterday afternoon, as I was talking to some Jabal Mohsen residents who were drinking coffee on its main street, the first burst of gunfire rang out.

“It happens every day, it never stops,” shrugged one youth.

Minutes later the mood changed as word spread of the attack in Damascus.

Jabal Mohsen’s streets emptied. Some people ran to take cover as the gunfire increased and the sound of rocket-propelled grenade fire and explosions could be heard.

“Go, go,” urged one man. “It is very dangerous now. They are happy in Bab Tabbaneh because of what has happened in Damascus and they can do anything now.”

More armoured vehicles began circling the neighbourhood. Tanks rolled past as we drove from Jabal Mohsen to the city centre. Away from the Alawite enclave, car horns blared in celebration. Fireworks exploded in some areas.

I called a Sunni source in Bab Tabbaneh. “It is like a festival here,” he said. “The gunfire is because we are celebrating the good news from Syria. The end is near for Assad.” A Sunni man who had fled Syria with his family five months ago agreed.

“This is the beginning of the end for the regime,” he said, as he and his family celebrated the news with sweets.

“God willing, we will soon return to our homes.”

Hours later it emerged that several people had been injured as gunfire raked the flashpoint area. There were reports of at least one fatality but the circumstances were unclear.

Rifaat Eid, an Alawite leader in Jabal Mohsen, claimed in a telephone interview with The Irish Times that his side had not responded to the firing from Bab Tabbaneh.

“The situation is very tense,” he added.