March 14 Military Wing Seizes Tripoli

Smoke billows in Tripoli's Bab al Tabanneh neighbourhood during clashes with Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, in Jabal Mohsen area in northern Lebanon, on 22 October 2012. (Photo: AFP - Joseph Eid)

By: Abdel Kafi al-Samad

Published Monday, October 22, 2012

The violent reactions to the assassination of General Wissam al-Hassan, head of the Internal Security Forces' Information Branch, have redrawn the political map of the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli.

As soon as news of Hassan's assassination spread on Friday, armed groups, including masked men, took to the streets. They shot their weapons towards the sky and demanded that shops immediately shut down. They burned tires in the streets and public squares and sealed off all the main roads into Tripoli, completely paralyzing the city.

Armed groups also attacked the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and Islamic Unification (Tawhid) Movement (IUM) headquarters, triggering 15 minutes of armed clashes before the army intervened to stop the fighting. Sheikh Abdul Razzaq al-Asmar from the IUM was killed in the clash.

The precarious and rapid security deterioration over the weekend brought back memories of the 7 May 2008 events when the March 8 coalition took over most of Beirut and demanded that Future Party's offices be handed over to the army.

In the past two days, a decision was made and immediately enforced to give the Lebanese Army control of the SSNP and IUM headquarters in al-Jummaizat and Abi-Samra streets, respectively. The decision was made after an emergency meeting at North Lebanon Governor Nassif Qaloush's office, which was attended by SSNP and IUM representatives.

Analysts say these latest developments clearly show how the military power scales in Tripoli have dramatically tipped since 2008 in favor of the opposition March 14 forces – with a new cocktail alliance of Islamists and groups loyal to Saad Hariri’s Future Movement.

Future managed to attract extremist Islamist forces to form a reliable alliance. In addition to the remnants of the well-known "regiments" in the city, the alliance managed to draw on zealous and mercenary Islamists, as well as Palestinian militants. Syrian opposition groups later joined, adding to its military power.

As of mid summer, the new Future-led alliance has engaged in 12 rounds of clashes around the Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen area, where its gunmen gained "combat experience."

Analysts say a lack of security and political coordination among the March 8 coalition also contributed to strengthening its rival alliance after the 2008 clashes. When the situation on the ground began to tip in favor of the March 14 team, it began to gradually gnaw at the clout of the March 8 camp in the city.

With the decision to keep the SSNP and IUM under the army's care, Jabal Mohsen becomes the only area in Tripoli outside March 14 military control. Snipers, mortar shelling, and other attacks on Jabal Mohsen continued throughout Saturday and Sunday, wounding four people.

Observers say this shift on the ground threatens the political diversity and pluralism the city has historically enjoyed as it gradually comes under the control of a single faction whose affiliations extend from the Future Movement to the Islamists and the Syrian opposition; groups that appear to be united by their common enemy more than a shared vision for the country.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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