Lebanon’s Little Syria

Bashar al-Assad's enemies and allies are battling it out in the flashpoint city of Tripoli.


Most Lebanese certainly wished otherwise, but it was only a matter of time before the bloodshed that has overwhelmed Syria for the past 15 months arrived at their doorstep. The conflict has now come to the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, which possesses a social fabric and history that make it fertile ground for the long-awaited proxy war between enemies and allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The latest conflagration was triggered by the May 12 arrest of previously unknown Sunni Islamist activist Shadi al-Mawlawi and five others by Lebanon’s General Security Directorate (GSD). Within hours of Mawlawi’s arrest, Sunni protesters took to the streets, blocked the highway, and burned tires to demand his immediate release — a call joined by the city’s politicians and clerics. The standoff soon spiraled out of control: Armed men deployed in the poor Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh, battling with gunmen of the adjacent district of Jabal Mohsen, which is inhabited by staunchly pro-Assad members of Lebanon’s small Alawite community. So far, the conflict, which has escalated to include rocket-propelled grenade and mortar attacks, has left five people dead and more than 100 wounded.

But there’s more to this conflict than meets the eye. It seems that GSD officers mounted a trap — Mawlawi was lured to a social services center under the pretext he would receive health care — and had no valid warrant at the time of the arrest. The agency later leaked that Mawlawi had returned days ago from Syria, where he allegedly partook in the rebellion, though it is impossible to confirm these claims. Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister, Najib Mikati, a native of Tripoli, called the manner of the arrest "unacceptable," adding that he "rejected and condemned [it]" during a meeting of Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council, the top body in charge of internal and external security. Notwithstanding this torrent of words, a military prosecutor charged the six men on May 14 with belonging to an "armed terrorist organization" and "plotting to carry out terrorist acts inside and outside of Lebanon." A Lebanese newspaper on May 15 quoted intelligence sources saying Mawlawi confessed to the accusations.

The arresting party is, to say the least, controversial. GSD is one of Lebanon’s many competing security agencies, and it is perceived as the internal arm of Hezbollah. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who previously served as Hezbollah’s and other Shiite factions’ go-to man in military intelligence, heads the organization, which has a broad mandate that includes monitoring political activity, foreigners, and the media. An anti-Assad Lebanese parliamentarian on May 14 laid the blame for the conflict squarely at Ibrahim’s feet, accusing him of "following a Syrian agenda in Lebanon."

In the absence of any history of impartial justice — other security agencies are similarly corrupt and dominated by other sects — Tripoli residents have focused their anger on the GSD for overstepping its authority. One friend in the city angrily asked me on May 14: "Does the Internal Security Forces [an agency seen as sympathetic to anti-Assad groups and the Sunni community] dare arrest someone in the south or Dahiyeh [the Hezbollah-controlled suburbs of Beirut]? No. So why is General Security even operating here?"

Lebanon’s own pathologies have been exacerbated by the bloody crisis next door. Northern Lebanon has been particularly welcoming of the Syrian opposition, rebels and refugees alike. This is not surprising. The region suffered greatly during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, notably in the 1980s when a brutal war arrayed Islamist and Palestinian factions against the ultimately victorious Syrian military and its Lebanese Alawite allies.

Tripoli and the Sunni-dominated north, in general, have predictably become an anti-Assad and anti-Hezbollah bastion since Syrian troops withdrew in 2005. Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, the city and its suburbs have seen many pro-revolution rallies, and many roads are decorated with anti-Assad slogans and flags, some espousing extreme sectarian views. Unsurprisingly in this city on the edge, which is also plagued by poverty and state neglect, deadly clashes have repeatedly occurred between Sunni and Alawite gunmen in recent months.

On my visits to the areas even closer to the Syrian border, further north and east of Tripoli, the local population’s enthusiasm for the revolution was unmistakable. This was particularly true in the region of Wadi Khaled, from where one can see the Syrian city of Homs and which has provided shelter for many of the refugees fleeing the military crackdown on that city and nearby villages. In the absence of the state, traditional networks supply the help needed. Syrian refugees stay in mosques and private homes; members of the Free Syrian Army regroup and find respite; and injured civilians and rebels receive medical care and sustenance.

Assad’s Lebanese allies have tried, unconvincingly, to paint all this activity as the work of Islamist radicals. Asked about the accusations by the pro-Assad Lebanese defense minister that al Qaeda was running the smuggling to Syria, a village chief laughingly responded, "We are doing all what this villain says, except that we are not al Qaeda or extremists."

He has a point: Residents of Wadi Khaled belong to tribes living on both sides of the border, and they support the Syrian rebels out of kinship rather than religious ideology. Smugglers in the area once transported cheap Syrian goods and gasoline into Lebanon — when the uprising erupted, they simply reversed the flow. Now they carry everything from weaponry to medical equipment and drugs across the minefields that the Syrian regime has laid along the border, bringing goods and supplies to the hot zones around the western Syrian cities of Homs and Qusayr. It should come as no surprise that the Lebanese Navy recently seized a ship bound for Tripoli from Libya that was carrying arms presumably destined for Syria.

The more radical Sunnis reside further to the south, in the rugged mountains of Dinniyeh and in the slums of Tripoli (though, of course, many moderate Sunnis live alongside them as well). There, the Salafi influence is visible to anyone who drives through. In December 1999, Islamist militants fought fiercely against the Lebanese military, backed by Syrian forces. Dozens were killed and hundreds arrested. In 2007, a shadowy jihadi group, Fatah al-Islam, took over the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared and battled the Lebanese Army for four months. Hundreds were killed in vicious fighting, and the camp was almost entirely destroyed. According to Lebanese intelligence, Fatah al-Islam members are now fighting alongside the rebellion in Syria, where a few were reportedly killed in April. The irony is not lost on many Lebanese who suspect, with good reason, Syrian intelligence of having contributed to its rise.

Ever since Syria’s uprising began, Hezbollah and its allies in the Lebanese government have wanted to see a more forceful state crackdown on anti-Assad activities. This, however, would fatally destabilize a government over which they wield decisive influence — alienating their shrinking number of Sunni allies at the risk of further inflaming sectarian passions. For his part, Prime Minister Mikati has tried to tread a thin line between assuaging his Sunni constituency and his pro-Assad allies in government, touting a shaky policy of neutrality and "dissociation" from developments in Syria. This has not prevented Lebanon’s security agencies from monitoring, harassing, and even aiding in the rendition of Syrian dissidents, to the anger of the country’s large anti-Assad constituency.

The possibility that the violence in Tripoli will spread across Lebanon remains limited, but the situation is undeniably deteriorating. Mikati’s strategy depends on the ability and willingness of each faction to control the more destructive tendencies of its followers. As the case of Tripoli demonstrates, however, this is easier said than done: Sunni groups, feeling triumphant or angry, may think (mistakenly) the time is opportune to strike a blow against their rivals at home, as well as Assad abroad. Hezbollah, militarily strong but politically on the defensive, may decide that preemptive action is warranted. Any of the two scenarios would throw Lebanon into a sectarian hell.

Tripoli’s descent into violence reveals two other ominous trends: the fragmentation of Sunni politics and the weakening of its mainstream politicians. Mikati, who came to power by displacing the vehemently anti-Assad Saad Hariri in January 2011, is one contender for the loyalties of Lebanon’s Sunnis, as is the Lebanese finance minister, Mohammad Safadi, another Tripoli native and wealthy candidate for the premiership. Hariri remains a powerful figure, but his standing has taken a hit because of his lackluster performance and a long absence from the country. All three are increasingly seen as weak, indecisive defenders of their sect.

This provides an opening for radical Sunni groups. Tripoli already plays host to several competing Salafi factions. Incredibly, one group — Harakat al-Tawhid — is aligned with Hezbollah. Most, however, are vehemently anti-Shiite and anti-Alawite. Omar Bakri Muhammad, a Syrian Salafi cleric who was expelled from Britain for his support for al Qaeda and a darling of the Western media for his fluency in English, resides in Tripoli. Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, a previously unknown Salafi cleric from the southern city of Saida, has emerged as a vociferous champion of Syria’s revolutionaries and a challenger of Hariri’s political dominance in the city.

The Sunni gangs fighting on the streets of Tripoli are not jihadi outfits — yet. Rather, they are a mishmash of armed political activists, religious militants, and neighborhood strongmen who think they are protecting their communities. But the growth of Salafi movements would not only adversely affect Lebanon’s fragile equilibrium — it could well taint the Syrian revolution. It would provide Assad with timely evidence that his domestic opponents are not struggling for freedom and democracy, but are allied with violent, foreign Salafists who object to his government on fundamentalist religious grounds.

In the meantime, the Lebanese military has been called in to rescue Tripoli. The Lebanese Army is generally seen as the country’s least politicized and least sectarian security force, though this image suffered when it stood idle as Hezbollah and its allies invaded Beirut in May 2008. Its deployment on the streets of Tripoli may contain the clashes for the moment, but it will merely serve as a Band-Aid — the military will neither seize weaponry nor arrest militiamen involved in the fighting, thus doing nothing to prevent the same bloody cycle from repeating itself.

The sad fact is that there are precious few saviors willing to guide Lebanon through this crisis. The military on which many Lebanese have pinned their hopes reflects, rather than transcends, the country’s many ills. Nor can the Lebanese count on their politicians — the Syrian crisis has crystallized the existing divides in Lebanon, with each side hoping that its allies next door will come out on top in the conflict. It looks like all sides will be disappointed — with little prospect of a game-changing development, the Syrian revolution will likely gain in complexity and violence, slowly dragging Lebanon down with it.

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