Tripoli Clashes: Keeping Conflict Alive

The clashes served as a chilling reminder of widespread concerns that violence in Syria might yet spill over into Lebanon. (Photo: Haytham al-Moussawi)

By: Serene Assir

Published Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Clashes between two Tripoli districts tell not only of what might happen should violence in Syria spill over into Lebanon. They also uncover old wounds that date back to the Lebanese civil war. But just as quickly as the violence flared up, it died.

Tripoli – While the rest of Tripoli held its breath, the neighborhoods Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen saw clashes flare up once again over the weekend.

Short yet intense, the clashes served as a chilling reminder of widespread concerns that violence in Syria might yet spill over into Lebanon.

Around sunset Friday, the exchange of fire was so intense between the mainly Alawi Jabal Mohsen, and the predominantly Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhoods, that it sounded like heavy rain.

Photo Blog | Tripoli: The Struggle Within by Haytham al-Moussawi

For a few hours early Saturday morning, the Lebanese army stood as a buffer between the two areas, which stand on two raised hills inland.

But as soon as the army withdrew from the streets, fighting began again, this time running until the early hours of the afternoon. A truce was then brokered, and then enforced by the Lebanese army.

Also on Friday, a large explosion in the nearby Abi Samra district destroyed what many claimed to be a Free Syrian Army (FSA) arms depot. The explosion killed three people, according to AFP.

This latest clash was the most intense since June last year, when at least seven people were killed in clashes between the two neighborhoods.

Both then and now, clashes broke out following demonstrations in central Tripoli, in support of the ongoing Syrian uprising.

But mutual enmity between armed parties in Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh’s is multilayered, ranging from strategic to political, historical and sectarian reasons.

More than Sunni versus Alawi

Resting his arm on the handle of what seemed like a brand-new automatic rifle, self-described long-time fighter Ahmed Taj El-Din said there was no way to explain the reasons behind the weekend’s fighting without referring to Tripoli’s experience of the Lebanese civil war.

This 46-year-old Bab al-Tabbaneh resident said that given the current evolution of the Syrian uprising, the potential for escalation was significant.

In an area so impoverished and reliant on sect-based assistance for survival, many Sunni-based political parties in Tripoli saw the configuration of alliances change on successive occasions through the 15-year Lebanese civil war.

“In the 1970s, we were Marxists. We wanted to fight against Zionism and imperialism,” said Taj El-Din. Today, much of Bab al-Tabbaneh fully supports Future movement leader and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Sheikh Walid Ain, seated next to Taj El-Din in a makeshift safe-zone with the sound of gunfire in the background, said he was especially grateful to Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz, for his support of north Lebanon’s Sunnis.

But neither the sheikh nor Taj El-Din seemed concerned by the multiple ideological leaps the people in the neighborhood have made over the past decades. Taj El-Din’s words seemed more reflective of a struggle to survive in a complex sectarian set-up, adapting to changing times and interests as required.

When groups such as the PLO lost Assad’s support, minority Alawi Lebanese became the enemy of armed Sunnis in Bab al-Tabbaneh.

Buildings in Bab al-Tabbaneh are pockmarked with holes made by bullets and explosives. It was difficult to gauge just how much of the destruction was new, and how much of it was a remnant of the past.

Similarly, Jabal Mohsen, which lies on a nearby hilltop, has not only suffered destruction but also lacks infrastructure.There are no hospitals. People injured during the latest clash might have easily died from their wounds.

On both sides, most combatants were unemployed, and were therefore easily mobilized.

Despite all the death and destruction the haunts the two areas, civilians seem resilient in the face of violence. In Bab al-Tabbaneh, women went out onto their balconies, ignoring the sound of bullets and grenade explosions, to pick up the washing.

Old men played cards and sipped tea as they discussed politics. Young men played football in the side alleys, within meters of the reach of the micro-war.

Reflecting their neighborhood’s topography and history, the fighters of Bab al-Tabbaneh seemed to have retained a civil war discourse.

But the new reason to fight was encapsulated in the Lebanese divide over the Syrian uprising that began in March 2011. While March 14 forces, including the Future Movement, are anti-Assad, parties such as Arab Democratic Party, are pro-regime.

Hence the oblique references to Western “support for Bab al-Tabbaneh’s Sunnis.”

“Today, in our struggle, we have the support of the whole of the free world, from America, to France and Turkey,” Taj El-Din said.

But where the echoes of Taj El-Din’s youth reverberated loudest was in the more incendiary overtones of his neighborhood’s narrative on intermittent clashes with Jabal Mohsen.

Residents of Bab al-Tabbaneh said they had decided to symbolically rename their neighborhood after Homs.

“We now call that area down there Baba Amr, and that one up there Khaldiye,” said one teenager, in reference to districts that have become symbolic to the Syrian uprising.

To him and other north Lebanese who support it, the uprising is a cause worth supporting because they consider that they too have suffered at the hands of the Syrian regime.

The journey Taj El-Din and others undertook from starting out as leftist militiamen to becoming pro-Future Islamists came about after a series of critical civil war junctures.

The 1982 establishment of the Islamic Unification Movement, Tawheed, increasingly gave many left-leaning Sunnis a new political identity. Initially supported by the PLO, Tawheed developed ties with Iran.

“The leader Abu Arabi [Akkawi] started to pray, after spending most of his life as a Marxist,” said Taj El-Din. “I wouldn’t say he became radical, but he did become a better Muslim.”

Khalil Akkawi, better known as Abu Arabi, was a prominent leader in Bab al-Tabbaneh, and became a leading member of the radical Tawheed before being assassinated at the hands of the Syrian army, according to his son Arabi Akkawi, in February 1986.

Both Taj El-Din and other Bab al-Tabbaneh residents’ narratives were reflective of an enmity that has since the 1980s pitted many north Lebanese Sunnis against the Syrian regime and pro-Assad Lebanese parties in Tripoli alike.

They described how pro-Assad Lebanese parties, including the majority Alawi Arab Democratic Party (ADP), were given cover by the Syrian army on 19 December 1986, to enter their neighborhood. According to sources citing Amnesty International, at least 200 people were killed in just two days.

Residents say the death toll was actually higher. Thousands of others were taken prisoner. “Many women were raped, children killed, and some old men were thrown out of their balconies,” said 53-year-old Abu Abdullah, who said he witnessed and survived the 1986 violence.

Bab al-Tabbaneh residents describe the events as a massacre. Abu Abdullah said many of those killed were executed with knives.

Abu Abdullah refused to reveal his full name. He said he still feared persecution by the Syrian regime or Lebanese parties allied to it, despite the Syrians’ withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005.

Regardless of how well-founded such fears were, what was clear was that “the wounds of the war are still there,” said Akkawi’s influential son Arabi in an interview on February 6.

Asked whether he expected a spill-over of ongoing violence in Syria into Lebanon, he did not give a direct answer. Instead, he replied: “If they attack, we will defend ourselves.”

Clashes Contained, For Now

Old wounds may have been used to get combatants involved, but they alone were not sufficient to get people to fight each other.

On the ground, the rationale for opening fire appeared weak and the fighting badly managed.

The situation spoke more of the long-term marginalization and dependency on competing political elites that both Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh suffered from, as opposed to any real reason to continue fighting with one another.

ADP vice-president Rifaat Eid said the real reason behind the fighting was the Syrian regime “taking control of the situation in Homs. The Future Movement ignited this clash out of vindictiveness.”

Homs was also the focus of protesters at Friday’s anti-Assad demonstration in downtown Tripoli, which saw several hundred people take to the streets chanting both political and religious slogans.

Revolutionary fervor mixed in with a sectarian flavor gave the protest a radical Islamist tone. “The blood of Muslims is one blood,” and “Bashar is the biggest liar” were among the slogans chanted by crowds of mostly male protesters.

Most demonstrators were Lebanese, with only a few Syrians in attendance.

After the demonstration, “radical terrorists in Bab al-Tabbaneh provoked the fighting,” said ADP spokesman Abdel Latif Saleh, from his party headquarters in Jabal Mohsen.

“We are not doing anything. We are not fighting back. It is the army that is dealing with suppressing the violence in Bab al-Tabbaneh. It is their responsibility to keep the peace,” he added.

Within minutes of Saleh’s statement, an exchange of fire took place between fighters in Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, as well as RPG explosions on buildings in the majority Sunni district.

At that moment, the Lebanese army was not partaking in any confrontations. Bab al-Tabbaneh residents accused the ADP of lying. They also said the Lebanese army and the Lebanese government only intervened when it suited their interests.

Prime Minister “Najib Mikati is a collaborator,” said Taj El-Din, accusing him of close ties to the Assad regime. “In reality, the Syrians’ revolution is our revolution.”

Given the near-existential nature of the Syrian crisis for both pro- and anti-Assad parties in Lebanon, there was a sense in Tripoli that at some point, the configuration of allegiances here may witness change forced by the course of history, once again.

And sadly change in Lebanon has, more often than not, involved bloodshed.

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