Trouble in Tripoli: Syrian Crisis Shifts The Stage
By: Ghassan Saoud
Published Monday, May 14, 2012
The events in Tripoli, North Lebanon over the weekend in which seven people were killed and over a dozen injured have exposed the city’s many fault lines.
The operation began at 1pm. The mission was completed in three hours: Tripoli fell to the so-called Salafis. Conservative Islamists make up only 20 percent of the residents of Lebanon’s second largest city. But, in a moment of official neglect, the Salafis took control of Tripoli.
The general director of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), Tripoli’s own Ashraf Rifi, has repeated since 2007 a phrase that summarizes the situation. If the state is absent, a 70-strong armed group can control the capital of the north. This is what the Tawhid movement did in the 1980s.
To understand what happened, we should compare the statement issued by Prime Minister Najib Mikati and that of Minister of Youth and Sports Faisal Karami, both of whom hail from Tripoli.
Mikati called for “strict control of the security situation and return to calm in the city.” Karami reminded the public of his warning “six months ago about the deteriorating security situation in Tripoli.”
The minister of sports called on the government to “provide cover for security forces to be able to fulfill their obligations.” This shows that Mikati wants to turn back the clock only 48 hours, but Karami seems tired of the prime minister patching up issues.
Karami knows that the sectarian and security mobilization taking place in the city in the last six months will lead to an explosion. “If not today, tomorrow, and if not tomorrow, then definitely the day after,” he said.
Listening to people from Tripoli, it becomes evident that the virtual absence of the security forces has created an atmosphere of lawlessness in Lebanon’s northern city.
You could kill someone and get away with it. That is if your family immediately holds a protest in front of the city’s courts, visits the ISF’s commander Ashraf Rifi, or supports the electoral campaigns of the dominant Future Movement.
Gangs of car thieves (and many other things) are proliferating. Syrian fighters, with pockets full of cash, are roaming a city and basking on its beaches, including neighboring Qalamoun.
Automatic rifles have replaced switchblades in daily individual altercations. Respect for the law has collapsed taking with it state and social institutions. All that remains is the army, which reminds us of its authority with a shooting incident every few days, and the general security apparatus, which surfaced a few weeks ago to carry out security operations.
The Last Straw
“Shadi Mawlawi [whose arrest sparked the crisis] was just an excuse to send a message,” says an informed source about the situation in the city.
The source says that five groups began moving in a coordinated manner at 1pm. The first belongs to Sheikh Salem al-Rafei who left the Future Movement to lead one of the largest Islamist formations in Tripoli. It is also the most militant and supportive (morally at least) of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
There is also Sheikh Hussein Sabbagh’s group and that of Amid Hammoud that includes the majority of combatants affiliated with MP Mohammed Kabbara. The majority of combatants from Akkar living in Tripoli are led by MP Khaled Daher.
Added to that is the FSA group consisting of dozens of Syrian fighters who recently began to appear in public, armed to the teeth in the city’s streets, especially in Abu Samra.
The protest against the arrest of Mawlawi was “utterly civilized,” according to the Future Bloc MP Khaled Daher. Civilized here means the deployment of hundreds of men all around the city, fully armed with modern weapons and communication equipment, peering out from behind positions reinforced with sandbags.
Then, there are the motorbikes carrying armed men between streets blocked by burning tires.
Adding to the skepticism of city figures about the “Urgent Day of Anger” is the location of the sit-in. It had been previously equipped with a tent put up by Sheikh Omar Bakri Fustuq about a week ago under the pretext of dealing with the situation of Islamists detained without trial.
Right before sunset, people in the city were able to watch from their apartment windows as the city turned into a playground for armed men and the Syrian opposition, after having failed to establish a buffer zone elsewhere.
Targeting The Army
According to a resident of Tripoli, the armed men began their real battle with the Lebanese army, bypassing Baathists, Syrian Nationalists, and Alawis with whom they’ve had skirmishes in the past.
It was an attempt to remove the last obstacle on their way to completely taking over the city. Mawlawi, who was the supposed reason for the protest, was forgotten as firefights between the army and fighters described as Salafis broke out and spread to different neighborhoods.
It should be mentioned that the army has nothing to do with the Islamist detainees, whose right to a fair trial has been a basic component in mobilizing the Salafi groups.
Therefore, according to sources from Tripoli, there are only two reasons behind what is happening in the city. The first sees that the Islamist attack on the army is “a form of jihad.”
The second considers that opponents of the Syrian regime based in Lebanon wanted to send a clear message to everyone involved following the Lutfallah 2 incident, in which Lebanese security forces intercepted a shipment of weapons to the Syrian opposition.
The situation escalated on Sunday as a call to fight “the infidels and apostates” circulated. Loudspeakers on cars called on Sunni soldiers to take off their “Crusader army” uniforms. In the meantime, some Future Movement officials admitted their inability to influence the events in the city.
A Future Movement activist said that “the smallest Salafi sheikh” is linked to a “generous brother” in Kuwait, Qatar, or Saudi Arabia. He can have much more money in his pockets than Hariri has in his safe.
He added that “the smallest Salafi sheikh” is undoubtedly more knowledgeable, eloquent, and able to convince than the biggest thinker in the Future Movement.
Tripoli is no longer what it was six months ago. People here wake up in Daraa, have their breakfast in Baba Amr, perform their noon prayers in Hama, lunch in Damascus, pray on the afternoon in Jabal al-Zawya, and sleep to the tunes of Wisal and other sectarian channels.
Saturday was a long day. The meeting held by the mufti of the North Malek Shaar could not reach a solution. Shaar’s guests moved to MP Mohammed Kabbara’s house. They agreed to send Kabbara, along with MP Khaled Daher, and Mouin Merhebi to the Nour Square to end the sit in.
They arrived there to discover that they are unable to demand anything. The issue is much bigger than them. They praised the protesters and one of them took off his shoes to sleep in the tent.
As a result of the negotiations, the situation returned to the terms set by Prime Minister Mikati, not Karami. The army will not raid the houses of those who shot at it, although its intelligence knows them one by one. Weapons will remain freely available and everywhere.
Mikati does not want a confrontation that could alienate a popular and influential camp like the Salafis. However there are many residents of Tripoli who are fed up with the tensions ruining their city’s economy and stability.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.