As gunfire crackles through the morning, two men walk into the living room of Abu Rami, a local military commander also known as the Titan.
One carries a machine gun, the other a sniper rifle. They have been taken from the room of Abu Rami’s two sons, which doubles up as his armoury. RPGs and rockets are kept under the bed, bullets and medical supplies in the cupboard. A poster of Che Guevara graces the wall. All day, fighters – some as young as 13 – come and go, in anticipation of a scrap. This is not an unusual scenario in Jabal Mohsen, an Alawite enclave in the northern city of Tripoli that has been engaged in combat with its Sunni neighbours since the 1980s.
The residents of Jabal Mohsen have long maintained that they are victims in this fight; they are an Alawite minority surrounded by a Sunni majority. Yet Alawis too, are well armed, better even than their Sunni opponents. The weapons come “from Syria”, says Abu Rami, meaning Damascus, where another Alawite, Bashar al-Assad remains President almost four years after the start of the uprising against his rule. And far from just being a targeted minority, the enclave has its own fighters, ammunition stocks and agenda. “Wait 48 hours and the entire city is going to be crying out for mercy,” said Abu Rami last Thursday morning.
Hours earlier a high official from the Arab Democratic Party (ADP) had been killed after his movements were posted on a Facebook page.
The ADP is the political representation of the Alawite enclave, housed on top of a hill overlooking Tripoli. Sniper screens; pieces of tarpaulin meant to obscure pedestrians and cars from view, have gone up. People who live on the front line bordering the Sunni area of Bab al-Tabbaneh are leaving their houses, carrying clothes in plastic bags. The ADP official in question, Abdel Rahman Diab, has a son in custody – he is under suspicion of taking part in a double car bombing that rocked Tripoli in August, killing 47 and wounding over 300. The bombs targeted two mosques known to have hardline imams, with a dislike of the regime of Assad in Syria. Tensions have been high since.
In pictures: Syria's escalating refugee crisis
In pictures: Syria's escalating refugee crisis
1/20 Syria refugee crisis
A young Syrian refugee stands near jerry cans used to collect water at Al-Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria. The United Nations hopes that political talks between the warring sides in Syria will clinch local ceasefires to allow vital food and medicines to reach millions of civilians
2/20 Syria refugee crisis
Syrian refugees transport small stones for their tents at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria
3/20 Syria refugee crisis
Representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a deeply divided opposition, world powers and regional bodies started a long-delayed peace conference aimed at bringing an end to a nearly three-year civil war
4/20 Syria refugee crisis
A Syrian refugee family rests inside their shelter in Hatay, Turkey
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A Syrian refugee family from Aleppo crosses the Bosphorus from Uskudar to the European side of Istanbul
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Syria's air force struck rebel-held areas around Damascus and Aleppo as face-to-face peace talks tentatively began in Switzerland
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Syrian refugees look out from an evacuated house in the Kucukpazar district of Istanbul. Syrians fill houses which have been evacuated for urban development projects. Destitute Syrian refugees who have fled the war in Syria and camps in Turkey are fighting for their lives in different parts of Istanbul
8/20 Syria refugee crisis
Refugees who moved into the houses in Kucukpazar neighbourhood near the historic Suleymaniye mosque, are struggling to live without water and heating
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A Syrian woman and her child stand inside a building in the Kucukpazar district of Istanbul
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A Syrian boy sits in debris in the Kucukpazar district of Istanbul
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Damaged buildings line a street in the besieged area of Homs
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People sit around a fire along a street lined with debris in the besieged area of Homs
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Children cut wood pieces in the besieged area of Homs. Efforts to get food and medical aid into Homs have become a test case on whether peace talks in Switzerland can produce any practical results almost three years into the Syrian conflict
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Boys walk along a street past damaged buildings and vehicles in the besieged area of Homs
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Syrians stand in a destroyed street following a reported airstrike by government forces on the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
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Rescue teams search for survivors on the rubble of a building following Syrian government air raids in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
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A graveyard in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
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A view of destruction in Aleppo's ancient Umayyad mosque, in the UNESCO-listed northern Syrian city. The mosque's minaret was blown up during clashes between opposition and government forces
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Syrians attend the funeral of victims who reportedly died of hunger in the besieged Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus
20/20 Syria refugee crisis
A man holds the corpse of one-year old baby Adbul Jalil Mohamed Hamis wrapped in shrouds, who reportedly died of hunger in the besieged Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus during a funeral ceremony
Since the Syrian civil war Tripoli has become a so-called “letter box”, where Syrian parties send messages to Lebanon. Most of Tripoli’s Sunni residents support the Syrian rebels. The ADP, on the other hand, has close ties to Damascus. Clashes now happen about once a month, sometimes lasting days. The city’s conflict causes losses to both communities; at least 141 people have been killed since 2008, most of them killed by snipers.
Jabal Mohsen is full of love for President Assad: his image graces the walls everywhere. Outside Abu Rami’s operation centre, a dingy office where fighters come to drink free tea and coffee, a poster shows the Virgin Mary looming protectively over the Syrian President.
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At the bottom of the hill, in Bab al-Tabbaneh, the black and white Salafi flag can be regularly spotted. Downtown Tripoli is flooded with martyrdom posters of local boys who have died fighting with the rebels in Syria. The al-Qa’ida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra announced its presence in the country in December and its presence in the city grows.
A building on the edge of Abu Rami’s quarter now also flies the flag of Jabhat al-Nusra. “There are bloody fights ahead,” predicts Abu Rami, while voicing his concern about an influx of foreign fighters into the city.
“This new religion of beheading and dismembering is very worrying,” he says, referring to a steady stream of pictures of beheaded Hezbollah members killed fighting in Syria. Among Alawites, too, there is growing sectarianism. Mohammed Zeim Ahmed, a bulky fighter with a shaved head, says he is not afraid of the Salafis. “We are fighting for the right cause: they are infidels,” he says.
Yet he and other residents of Jabal Mohsen feel increasingly under siege. Those that leave suffer the consequences. Mr Zeim Ahmed was stabbed 39 times the last time he left, about four months ago. “Just because I am an Alawite,” he says. The Alawites are particularly vulnerable to physical assault as well as attacks on their property, according to a Human Rights Watch report released last December.
Both neighbourhoods are poor. Most of the men in Jabal Mohsen have not worked in months as isolation dries up work. “This is no way to live,” says Zeim Ahmed, who hasn’t dared to go back to his work in Tripoli since his assault.
Many complain of being unable to feed their children. Fighter Abu Abas would rather have the Syrian regime send food than arms, or even better, build a hospital. The only medical facility is a rudimentary clinic. The badly wounded have to rely on the Lebanese military to evacuate them by armoured personnel carrier. This draws ire from the fighters in Bab al-Tabbaneh, who target the military as a result.
The city has officially been under military control since December, with tanks everywhere. But Abu Rami’s fighters walk around carrying guns, unbothered by the soldiers stationed next to their headquarters. “Whenever there is fighting, the soldiers disappear, or rely on me for their protection” says Abu Rami.