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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
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

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas