Nightmare on Syria Street

In Lebanon's northern capital, the Syrian civil war is being fought block by block.

AFP / Getty Images
AFP / Getty Images

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — The route to Bab al-Tebbaneh, a largely Sunni neighborhood at the heart of the recent deadly clashes in Lebanon’s second city, winds along the bustling port road, littered incongruously with fruit vendors and military barricades, and through the Abu Ali roundabout, where snipers from the neighboring Alawite enclave of Jabal Mohsen have wreaked havoc in recent weeks. The streets here are adorned with massive, blue-nylon curtains that can be drawn at a moment’s notice, hiding residents from sharp shooters positioned above. Today, most of the curtains are pulled back and we pass easily, heading south-east, alongside the storied Harba Mosque, where Sunni militiamen meet to discuss operations, and onto Syria Street, the dividing line between the two rival neighborhoods and ground zero in Tripoli’s slice of the Syrian civil war.

Split along sectarian lines and divided by opposition to and support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, residents of Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen have clashed 18 times in the last two and a half years, with shells and automatic gunfire raining down on both neighborhoods with devastating regularity. Each day, it seems, brings with it the possibility of renewed violence, a prospect made more immediate by the Lebanese government’s clumsy attempts to put a lid on the conflict. Days after Beirut announced a new security plan last month — which saw Lebanese Armed Forces deployed to both neighborhoods — a vicious round of fighting broke out, leaving at least 16 people dead and close to 100 wounded. Then on Nov. 17, as the country’s caretaker interior minister arrived in Tripoli to unveil the plan’s second phase, clashes erupted once again, this time between Sunni militants and Internal Security Forces.

Resentment in Lebanon’s northern capital runs deep: Alawites, marginalized under Ottoman rule, enjoyed special privileges during the French mandate period, but entered a long era of political oblivion with the independence of the Lebanese state in 1943. Numbering less than 120,000 — the majority of whom live in or around Jabal Mohsen — the sect represents a tiny minority in Lebanon and has maintained strong ties to neighboring Syria, where Alawites have ruled since 1970. Residents of Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen fought against each other in Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, with the Alawite stronghold backing the Syrian regime. Today, the fighting persists largely because there isn’t anything else to do in what are two of the most impoverished communities in Lebanon. The arrival of civil war in Syria hit this region hard, depressing cross-border trade, crippling tourism, and leaving many young men without work — and vulnerable to recruitment by leaders of the so-called "axes" in Tripoli’s internecine war.

We have come to Bab al-Tabanneh to meet with one such leader, Sheikh Abu Bera, who commands a Sunni militia of 50 or 60 men. Once a die-hard extremist, the sheikh spent much of the mid-2000s in prison for his role in the 2002 bombing of a KFC restaurant in Tripoli. The plot, linked to a boycott campaign against U.S. products in retaliation for the United States’ perceived bias toward Israel, involved detonating three pounds of TNT in the middle of the American-style fast-food eatery at 4:30 am, ripping it and most of the adjacent Hardee’s and Baskin Robbins restaurants apart. Amazingly, no one was killed in the blast — the result of dumb luck and the early hour at which the explosion occurred.

Since being released, Abu Bera has focused his attention on the near enemy. In 2008, after the Shiite militant group Hezbollah seized control of much of west Beirut and ignited a round of fighting in Tripoli, he threw himself into the local conflict with the zeal of a convert. "When the people of Jabal Mohsen are intent on keeping the crisis going," he says, "there is no other choice but to stand and fight."

The sheikh is slightly built with close-cropped hair and a long, course beard. His dark eyes, patient but penetrating, reinforce the air of someone who never has to raise his voice to be heard. Speaking to us in his modest flat on the third story of a bullet-riddled apartment building, he gets up several times to separate his elementary school-aged boys, who are at each others’ throats beneath a row of religious texts on the opposite side of the living room. At one point, he hoists his infant daughter onto his lap, cradling her as she tugs lovingly at his beard. "I have noticed that my children are now accustomed to the sounds of bullets and bombs. They can sleep at night," he says. "But still, I am afraid for them as long as the fighting lasts…. This is not a life."

Despite the obvious correlation between his own militant activities and the increasingly high levels of violence in Bab al-Tabbaneh, Abu Bera does not see himself as aggravating the conflict. Instead, he paints a portrait of a community under siege — a rag-tag coalition of neighborhood watchmen trying to hold off a disciplined paramilitary organization in Jabal Mohsen. "It is possible that Hezbollah or the Syrian regime is providing [Alawite militiamen] with technical assistance," he says. "It is suspicious that their snipers were more accurate in the last round of clashes."

It’s the kind of one-sided telling that just as easily could have originated on the other side of Syria Street. There, the charges would have featured rumors of funding from the Gulf — a week of fighting is said to cost roughly $2.5 million — as well as incitement by radical Sunni clerics and political elites who profit from the cycle of violence. Abu Bera himself denies receiving foreign funds: "I don’t even have money for myself and the amount of munitions I have is not large. I buy my munitions from the money I make in work," he says, adding that he shares what little he has with his men. "They fight based on their belief of defending our region."

Foreign Policy could not verify Abu Bera’s claims about funding, or lack thereof, but experts agree that much of the support for Sunni militias is coming from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. "These are conflicts rooted in long-standing, local problems that predate the Syrian conflict by several decades," says Faysal Itani, a Lebanon expert at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. "But of course they are influenced by Gulf patronage. All of the Sunni leadership in Lebanon is to some extent." According to Itani, much of the money is coming from private donors: "The extent to which it is government policy versus private donor networks is unclear. But private funding plays a significant role. Wealthy donors, who may well be based in the Gulf, support militant networks that straddle the border between Lebanon and Syria."

Foreign parties, of course, are equally involved on the other side of the conflict: Alawite militants in and around Tripoli have long received financial support and weapons from the Syrian state, and militants in Jabal Mohsen "often coordinate closely with Syrian intelligence," notes Itani. The war in Syria, he says, "only increases the importance of supporting them in the Syrian government’s eyes."

*  *  *

Outside Abu Bera’s apartment, a dozen teenage boys and young men are milling about. Arms draped aro
und one another, the boys carouse and play fight, threatening to empty a giant blue barrel of rainwater onto the ground and mock-interviewing passers-by with an imaginary microphone. At one point, a 9mm handgun falls out of one boy’s pants, clattering onto the ground and dislodging the clip. He picks it up, examines it briefly, and casually stuffs it back into his skinny jeans.

Moments later, a convoy of American-made M113 armored personnel carriers churns down the street, infantrymen manning the guns on top. Although they have been involved in occasional violent incidents, the Lebanese Armed Forces are essentially bystanders in this quarrel. As Abu Bera puts it, "The password to know when the clashes have ended is when the Army enters."

Some of the young men outside the sheik’s apartment are members of his fighting force. One, a 23 year-old who goes by the name Abdel Rahman, says he had no choice but to take up arms: "Our houses are here and we cannot leave…. We feel compelled to fight and defend ourselves." But there is also a predictable economic element to Rahman’s story. Hair slicked back and wearing a fitted blue-striped sweater, he says he lost his job when clashes forced the company he was working for out of business. Now, like many young men in the area, he can’t find work. "I joined because I was here doing nothing."

Rahman is not the only fighter in his family. All of his brothers and many of the men in his family have joined the militia. When clashes began in 2011, he went out and bought a gun. Still, Rahman says he has friends on the other side. Jabal Mohsen is a stone’s throw from where he and other militiamen hang out on Syria Street, the grey, pock-marked facades of the high-rises in the Alawite enclave throwing shade over Bab al-Tabanneh in the morning. "I have Alawite friends, but they did not join the clashes," he explains. "We talk politics, but are careful not to say too much."

When asked about the depressed economic conditions in this part of the country, the young militant points to a familiar scapegoat: the deluge of Syrian refugees that have flooded into Lebanon since 2011. "They took all our jobs," he says, adding that rent in some parts of Bab al-Tabbaneh is four times as high as it was before the start of the Syrian conflict. "They live three or four families in one apartment," he says, "so of course they can pay the rent." Syrian beggars have become everyday fixtures of Tripoli, with over 200,000 Syrian refugees pouring into northern Lebanon in the last two and a half years — some 7,600 of whom now live near Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, where rent is relatively inexpensive. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) registers 500 more in the Tripoli field office every day, though the real number of arrivals is probably much higher.

Of course, poverty and rampant joblessness long predate the Syrian crisis in this part of the country. According to a 2008 report by the International Poverty Centre, roughly 40 percent of Lebanon’s poor live in in the north, despite the fact that the region is home to only 20 percent of the country’s population. In Tripoli and the surrounding area, more than half of residents are either poor or extremely poor — defined as surviving on less than $2.40 per person per day — making it significantly worse off than even Lebanon’s notoriously impoverished south. But the recent surge in violence has accelerated the region’s decline; earlier this year, the head of Tripoli’s Chamber of Commerce reported that economic activity in the city had fallen by 80 percent during one week-long period of fighting. Paired with the additional pressures of supporting large numbers of Syrian refugees, the dismal economic situation is pushing this part of the country to a breaking point.

"The violence in Tripoli affects everyone. It’s a long simmering situation," says Ninette Kelley, UNHCR’s Lebanon representative. "But what is true is that the Syrian crisis has exacerbated tensions." With no end to the Syrian conflict in sight, Kelley says there is growing fatigue among Lebanese across the country as wheat, electricity, and housing prices rise. In some areas, she says, "we have more Syrian refugee children than Lebanese children in Lebanese schools."

*  *  *

A short, ten-minute drive from Bab al-Tebbaneh on Tripoli’s Mediterranean coast lies a sprawling urban slum known as Hay Al-Tanak, or the "neighborhood of tin," for the roofs of its shabby dwellings. Since the 1960s, poor Lebanese families have lived between the mountainous piles of rubbish and kasab, or cane, groves that dominate the landscape. But now, over two and a half years into the war ravaging Syria, the informal settlement houses thousands of Syrian families, crammed into filthy makeshift shelters. Toddlers play in muddied water without shoes. Flies buzz incessantly.

Hussein, a tired, 36-year-old Syrian who looks twice his age, says he relocated here after fighting forced his family out of al-Qubbeh, a Sunni-majority neighborhood close to Bab al-Tabanneh. "Shots went into the house and bombs went off not far away," he says. "Eventually our roof fell in and the Army had to come and move us out of the building." Even before that, he says, his son — who fled Syria with an uncle months before he could leave — was forced to flee Bab al-Tabbaneh after being roughed up by the neighborhood’s residents.

Even without the daily threat of violence, the outlook for Syrian refugees like Hussein is bleak. Jobs are available, but they are menial and paid by the day. "It is not easy to find work, but it is possible. What I find is not enough to pay the rent," he says. Even before he can finish his thought, however, an older Syrian man listening in on our conversation interrupts: "If you count all the days Hussein has been here, it won’t be more than three days of work."

Like almost everyone in Tripoli, Hussein is anxiously awaiting the end of hostilities in Syria. "No matter what, I want to go back," he says. "It was much better there before the war. I could at least send my children to school." But with Assad’s forces gradually chipping away at rebel gains and meaningful peace talks seemingly far off, there’s no telling how long he and his family will be here.

In a way, the war in Syria has become a crutch — an excuse even — that makes comprehensible why so many lives have been put on pause. Despite widespread recognition that economic stagnation and government neglect have partially propelled Tripoli to its current depths, most people see peace in Syria as the only path to recovery. Over and over again in Bab al-Tabbeneh, residents and fighters said that everything would return to normal as soon as Assad falls. When that will happen, though, is an open question. 

"As long as Syria is in crisis," Abu Bera says as he shows us out of his apartment, "the situation will not end here." The end of the crisis, he adds, rubbing his beard, "will not be for a long time."   

Sophia Jones is a senior editor with the Fuller Project for International Reporting covering gender and global security. Twitter: @sophia_mjones

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