Tripoli: A Battleground in the Regional Struggle
By: Nicolas Nassif
Published Thursday, August 23, 2012
The latest clashes in Tripoli are being seen as a message related directly to the disturbances in Syria, but into which not too much should be read. They are not about to expand further, despite the heavy casualties, nor is this the last round in a long series. In context, they can be viewed as part of an expected, even normal, course of developments:
First, neither side in the fighting – the Arab Democratic Party (ADP) in Jabal Mohsen, and followers of the Future Movement and other parties, Salafi groups or leading Tripoli figures in Bab al-Tabbaneh – is capable of settling the armed conflict in its favor. The besieged Alawi minority, which is said to be supplied with arms via two routes from Zgharta and Baddawi refugee camp, cannot translate its arsenal into a political or territorial victory. Nor can its rivals who represent the city’s Sunni majority. They have neither the means nor the necessary local and foreign political cover to resolve the conflict militarily. But they are capable of engaging in a prolonged and costly war of attrition, without the balance of power changing in the slightest.
The other players backing the rival sides in Tripoli, such as Hezbollah and the Future Movement, also do not want to see a military showdown (and none of the Lebanese players from outside the city have intervened directly in the armed conflict). But the two sides have enough arms and ammunition to engage in one round of fighting after the other, using the lulls, which can sometimes last for weeks, to resupply. The narrowly confessional nature of their war transcends the political divide between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, with pro-March 8 Sunni fighters fighting their supposed allies, the Alawis of Jabal Mohsen.
Second, the message sent out by the fighting has to do with spreading chaos and deepening the division in Tripoli, but not long-term political goals or changing the balance of power in the city or North Lebanon. It is not likely to directly spark other clashes elsewhere. This does not mean that such clashes are unlikely; merely that they will not will be consequences or direct repercussions of what is happening in Tripoli.
This was the case with the events in Akkar more than two months ago, the subsequent clashes in Beirut’s Tariq al-Jdideh, and the incidents over the past few weeks in the capital and the southern suburbs and on the airport road. All were comparable armed or quasi-armed clashes reflecting political divisions over Syria, but they did not lead to one another or set off a constant cycle of clashes.
Third, confirming the perceived link to events in Syria, sources close to the Future Movement blame the latest outbreak of violence, and its scale, on ADP leader Rifaat Eid. They charge he has links with Col. Hafez Makhlouf, President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin and a member of his inner circle, who regularly uses him and his supporters to cause disturbances.
They say that during Assad’s 2009-2010 rapprochement with Future Movement leader and former prime minister Saad al-Hariri, Eid was asked to ease tensions in the North in keeping with the improved relationship. Makhlouf convinced Eid to call on Internal Security Forces chief Ashraf Rifi and the head of the Information Branch Wissam al-Hassan in order to turn a new leaf in relations and establish a cooperative relationship with them. Makhlouf called Rifi beforehand to inform him of Eid’s impending overture to the former prime minister’s acolytes.
Fourth, events in Tripoli can be seen as an extension of developments in Homs. During the first few months of their armed confrontation with the Assad regime, its opponents inside the country and especially in Homs, relied on an ample supply of weapons obtained or bought in Tripoli. It is said that some of these were stolen from the arsenals of pro-March 8 parties and organizations, which had been provided for them by Hezbollah in order to achieve a military balance in the North between the Future Movement and Salafis and the parties and figures close to March 8. So at one point the armed Syrian opposition was fighting with weapons it bought from Hezbollah’s allies.
The violence witnessed in Homs in the first two months of this year was mirrored in similar rounds of fighting between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh. This was particularly apparent when the Syrian army raided the former rebel stronghold of Baba Amr, prompting the traditional front-lines to flare-up in Tripoli. The pattern has been repeated since then, reflecting not only the historic connection between the populations of the two cities, but a decades-old relationship with Syrian military intelligence. Many Tripoli residents still recall the name of Abdo Hakim (Abu Usama) of the Syrian military intelligence, who was as famous in the 1950s and 60 as Ghazi Kanaan became between 1976 and 1984.
It is claimed that Syria sparked the clashes in Tripoli to divert attention from what is happening in its own territory, and raise the prospect of the armed conflict spreading to Lebanon. This linkage troubles the ambassadors of major powers, who recently met with Lebanese security officials to quiz them about the reasons for the unprecedented deterioration, which also extended to the army, and the possibility of separating between what happens in Syria and Lebanon.
Finally, under the pressure of the sharp rift over Syria between its Sunnis and Alawis, Tripoli has become another battleground in the struggle to overthrow the Syrian regime, just like the rural hinterlands of Homs, Idlib, Hama and Deraa – long at odds with Assad’s regime, and his father’s before him, from where spread the spark of revolt and then armed opposition.
Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.