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.

Read more:
Russians back urgent aid for war-torn Syria
Tragic truth of Syria's 500,000 refugee children
Comment: Ingredients for a long Syrian war are all still in place

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA powerful collection of reportage on Egypt’s cycle of awakening and relapse
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Auditor

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: IT Auditor , Information Governance, NHS...

Process Improvement Analyst (Testing)

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Service Delivery Manager - Derivatives, Support,

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Delivery Manager - (Derivatives, Support...

WPF .NET Developer

£300 - £350 per day: Harrington Starr: WPF Analyst Programmer NET, WPF, C#, M...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform