Lebanon's neighbours at war: Tripoli has become a 'letter box' for Syria's civil war and now the conflict is tearing the city apart

The Alawites of northern Lebanon adore President Assad but they are a minority surrounded by Sunnis who send their sons to fight with the rebels. Now Syria’s conflict is tearing their city apart. Fernande van Tets reports from Tripoli

Tripoli

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.

 

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.

Protesters demand an easing of tension in Tripoli, where two people were killed on Thursday Protesters demand an easing of tension in Tripoli, where two people were killed on Thursday (Reuters)
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.

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