Lebanon: Are battles in Tripoli over or on hold?

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Lebanese army soldiers patrol in a market in Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, following two days of deadly clashes militants, in Tripoli, Lebanon, on October 27, 2014. (Photo: Anadolu Agency)

Published Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Clashes in Tripoli and northern Lebanon between the Lebanese army and armed militants ended on Monday, after four days of intense confrontations. Militants affiliated with Syria’s al-Qaeda branch, al-Nusra Front, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other local extremist groups “disappeared” from the streets, but they didn’t vanish. The armed militants split into two groups: one group fled Tripoli for neighboring regions (security sources say that some of them escaped to the outskirts of Danniyeh); the other group remained in their positions in Tripoli. The militants’ dispersal is an undisputable fact. However, a major question remains: How did the clashes end?

Politicians and security officials spoke about an “illegitimate” settlement that forced armed militants to drop their weapons and retreat. However, the Lebanese Army Command denies that it was the case.

Army commander, General Jean Kahwaji, attended Monday morning a meeting at the Grand Serail, chaired by Prime Minister Tammam Salam, in the presence of defense, interior and justice ministers, as well as other security officials. Kahwaji asserted that the army was going to go forward in the operation against armed militants until the end.

However, less than two hours later, all “military activity” ceased. The army command released a statement saying that “politicians who were provoked by the army’s swift and decisive success in eradicating terrorists” are speaking about a ceasefire deal that didn’t take place.

A source close to ministers belonging to the March 14 coalition denied that politicians from the Future Movement worked towards reaching a compromise between the militants and the army, saying that the Lebanese army took the decision to start the battles as well as the decision to end them.

The source also added that the decision to halt the military operation is probably related to one of two scenarios: either the army realized that what it had accomplished in four days is the best it can achieve, taking into consideration that the lives of civilians and their properties are at stake; or the army command genuinely believes that it fulfilled the military goals of the operation.

On Monday, the army “ended a battle” but the war against terrorism in north Lebanon is far from being over, the sources concluded.

Media outlets and politicians from Tripoli announced Monday morning that the military operations came to an end and that militants simply “disappeared” from the streets. The announcement was followed by talks of a two-stage ceasefire deal: the first stage was led by Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s former prime minister; the second was led by figures in the Future Movement, mainly Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi.

A politician from Tripoli told Al-Akhbar that Mikati reached out to one of the sheikhs in the region, who in return convinced the militants to retreat from the city’s Old Souks. The head of the Army Intelligence’s northern branch Brigadier Amer al-Hassan was in charge of negotiations on behalf of the army.

Regarding the neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh, rumors in Tripoli say Ashraf Rifi was the one who proposed a ceasefire that not only ended the Bab al-Tabbaneh clashes but also led to the “disappearance” of the armed militants.

Militants who withdrew from Tripoli’s Old Souks as well as those who fled Bab al-Tabbaneh used the Abu Ali River to “disappear.”

Moreover, word on the street is that the ceasefire deal was created by the Association of Muslim Scholars, which protected and shielded militants and allowed the entry of the army to carry out raids in the neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh, which coincided with the release of a kidnapped soldier. This occurred following the militants’ initiative to free the kidnapped. Many raids were launched on weapon storage buildings in Bab al-Tabbaneh, despite protests from Tripoli residents calling for limited raids on the strongholds without entering civilian neighborhoods in which militants are suspected to be taking refuge and hiding weapons.

Civilian sources in Tripoli also claimed that the number of dangerous fighters did not exceed 150, and that the largest groups are under the command of Shadi Mawlawi, Osama Mansour, and Omar Mikati (Abu Hurreira). The army suffered great losses, but the insurgents also took a big blow, according to those same sources.

A northern political analyst says the attempt by al-Nusra Front and ISIS to find an accessible seaport has most likely been abandoned. However, he stressed the need to focus on the possibility of militants gaining strength in the coming months.

In Tripoli, people are breathing a sigh of relief that the fighting has finally stopped. However, many of them feel pessimistic about the new settlement, exhausted of going through the same scenario over and over again: a battle ignites with countless dead and wounded, the army raids the city and some new settlement is made in which the militants go into hiding until a new spark brings them out again.

Al-Akhbar has information that the army is preparing to sweep the areas between Miniya and Akkar, where Sheikh Khaled Hablas and his followers are said to be taking refuge. In response, the militants of Bab al-Tabbaneh have fled. Following the intensification of the army bombings, a number of them have shaved their beards and shed their combat fatigues to freely move as civilians. Military intelligence became aware of this after having planted informants at Bab al-Tabbaneh checkpoints to detect them. One of the biggest finds at these checkpoints was the insurgent Dani Denesh, who shaved his beard and head in an attempt to disguise his identity. Denesh is known for being one of the more extremist militants after having declared Sheikh Salem al-Rifi, Imam of the Taqwa Mosque, an infidel.

A large number of militants have been arrested at checkpoints as they attempted to flee Bab al-Tabbaneh. The most wanted militants Shadi Mawlawi, Osama Mansour, and Omar Mikati are thought to still be hiding within Bab al-Tabbaneh, as some speculate that Mawlawi was wounded by gunfire.

(Al-Akhbar)

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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