x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A new front line in Syria's conflict

Tripoli's mayor is among those who have been pushing for the community to speak out against the sectarian violence in the city and find solutions beyond just sending in troops to keep the fighters at bay.

TRIPOLI, LEBANON // Lebanese army vehicles loaded with soldiers roll along Syria Street in the Bab Al Tabbaneh area of Tripoli, the front line of sectarian fighting.

About 20 people have been killed since simmering hostilities exploded last month into violence inflamed by the conflict across the border in Syria.

The worst clashes have been in Tripoli, specifically around Bab Al Tabbaneh and Jebel Mohsen.

While the street battles of a few weeks ago appear to have been contained, fighters from the two areas routinely exchange fire. It's a cycle the army and civic leaders are trying to defuse.

Friction between the Alawite enclave of Jebel Mohsen and the largely Sunni parts of Tripoli, such as Bab Al Tabbaneh, is nothing new. Fighting sparked by historic animosity has become almost routine.

For some, the recent violence recalls the days of Lebanon's 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

Most of Tripoli's population of about 650,000 is Sunni. Jebel Mohsen, perched on top of a hill surrounded by mostly Sunni areas, is home to many of the city's tens of thousands of Alawites - followers of the same offshoot of Shia Islam as Al Assad dynasty in Syria.

Lebanon's small Alawite community gained political clout during Syria's 29-year military presence in Lebanon, which ended in 2005. Some in the community still look to the Syrian regime for support.

Lebanese army patrols are heavily deployed around Syria Street, where tanks are stationed and soldiers staff checkpoints on a road that leads from Bab Al Tabbaneh up into Jebel Mohsen. Both areas are poor, crowded and battered by frequent street battles.

As Abu Al Bara' walks down the street, young men sitting in plastic chairs stand in deference as he passes. The 39-year-old Sunni imam commands a group of about 50 fighters.

"Today things are OK here," he says in the living room of his modest apartment overlooking the street. "Tomorrow, I don't know. The situation is very tense and there is still shooting every day."

Abu Al Bara' - his nom de guerre - disappeared into another room and returned later with a Fal assault rifle and a couple of Energa anti-tank grenades.

"The decisions are being taken on the ground to defend our area," he says, a two-way radio at his side. "To stop the bloodshed, everyone should disarm, including us - but they have to do it first."

Both sides blame each other for the violence. Abu Al Bara' and others in Bab Al Tabbaneh say they are being targeted because there is support in their community for the Syrian opposition.

Some believe that the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad has ordered the fighting as a warning that efforts to topple his government will stoke regional chaos.

In Jebel Mohsen, some believe they are being targeted for supporting the Syrian government. Ali Feddah, a young leader from the Alawite-affiliated Arab Democratic Party, maintains that his community is on the defensive.

"We are surrounded from everywhere. No one can get out if there is fighting. So what does that tell you? Are we on the defensive or the offensive?" he said.

"As we see it, all that is happening because of fitna [chaos]. It's not to our benefit to continue and, of course, we want it to be over."

On a road leading to the Alawite area, three Lebanese soldiers are positioned on a rooftop overlooking Bab Al Tabbaneh. Just across the street, posters of Bahaa Dawood, a "martyr" killed during clashes last month, are plastered on the side of a building.

On a lamppost just below the images of the 23-year-old is a poster of a waving Mr Al Assad in front of a Syrian flag.

Dawood Dawood, 55, said his son was not a fighter, just someone in the wrong place at the wrong time when fighting broke out in May. Most of the people killed have been civilians.

"I don't want to take revenge. If by the death of my son it ends the conflict, then I am fine," he said. "But he was killed just because he is from here - Jebel Mohsen. That is his crime. I am sure nothing will end this."

But leaders from across Tripoli see things differently and say they are determined to defuse tensions. Tripoli's mayor, Nader Ghazal, is among those who have been pushing for the community - including professional labour groups and non-governmental organisations - to speak out against the violence and find solutions beyond just sending in troops to keep the fighters at bay.

The city has held a day of mourning, a strike and a sit-in in the central Tel Square, where a large banner was hoisted a couple of weeks ago calling for a "safe and secure Tripoli".

"We realised we have to do something at the community level, rather than the political groups," Mr Ghazal said. "We wanted to involve everyone and believe the silent majority has spoken."

While the fighting has largely been confined to Jebel Mohsen and areas encircling the enclave, the effect has reverberated across the city and beyond.

Mr Ghazal said the entire community has been shaken. Damages from the fighting are estimated to run into the tens of millions of dollars in already poor neighbourhoods. Alawite-owned businesses have been vandalised.

"We are talking about one of the poorest areas in Lebanon. And who is paying for these people to come out and fight? Those who have a political agenda," Mr Ghazal said.

"There are so many social problems that need to be fixed. Before military security come social, education and economic security. Those guys who are fighting, some have no option. Either you go hungry or you take $100 and fight."

Weekends are particularly dangerous, when there are protests against the Syrian regime.

"We have been having the weekend wars. It has been starting on Friday and goes on till Sunday. Then everyone has to go back to work," Mr Ghazal said.

"Meanwhile, there has been major damage to the areas and people injured or killed. We are saying enough is enough."