In Lebanese City, Syrian Conflict Spills Over In Two Rival Neighborhoods
In the Lebanese city of Tripoli, the Sunni Bab al-Tebbaneh neighborhood and the Alawite Djebel Mohsen neighborhood are at war. On one side supporters of the Syrian revolution, on the other side supporters of the Syrian regime.
TRIPOLI, Lebanon - In Tripoli, the Sunni Bab al-Tebbaneh neighborhood and the Alawite Djebel Mohsen neighborhood have been at war for the past month. One road separates them: Syria Street. A name that says it all.
The Bab al-Tebbaneh Sunnis support the Syrian revolution and accuse the Alawites of destabilizing Lebanon to help the Syrian president. The Djebel Mohsen Alawites defend president Bashar al-Assad and accuse the Sunnis of harboring terrorists.
The walls of Syria Street are a testament to how violent the fighting is. The buildings are riddled with bullets, apartments burned. But it is the snipers that worry inhabitants the most, the hidden shooters who can target you at any moment. People in both neighborhoods have spread large tarps above the most exposed roads to stay hidden from snipers. In a month, about 30 people have been killed and a dozen wounded.
The conflict has old origins. In Bab al-Tebbaneh, men call us out to explain why they are supporting the Syrian revolution. "We know what the Syrian Army is capable of," says Mohamed. In 1986, they butchered more than 500 people in this neighborhood when they were occupying Lebanon. The army accused us of fighting against them."
"I spent seven years in prison," says Abou Abed. "I was 15-years-old when I was arrested and brought to Syria. The guards hit me every day with a metal pipe." His brother, who was an Islamist, died while being tortured. His body was never returned to his family.
The Lebanese army came to Syria Street and into both neighborhoods. The army intervened timidly at first, a sign of its difficulty in dealing with religious diversity. At first, when the two sides would start fighting, the troops would leave. But for a few days now they have decided to stem any outbursts. Tanks started shooting the last time Alawite militas shot at the Sunni neighborhood.
In the Alawite neighborhood overlooking Bab el-Tebbaneh, the guide provided by the militias, Rifaat Eid, shows us the poster of the "hero" Ali Chbib, killed by a sniper while he was walking down the street. Myriam, his mother, cries when talking about her son. "I have another son, Abdelrahman, who works in construction. He has to go to a Sunni neighborhood for work. Each day, I worry that the others will attack and kill him."
A deforming mirror
Rifaat Eid is the leader of the Arab Democratic Party, the Alawite political movement fronting a pro-Syrian militia. He commands approximately 250 well-armed men. In Djebel Mohsen, his giant portrait is unfurled in front of a building. "Everything that is happening in Lebanon and Syria is instigated by NATO, the United States and France," says Rifaat Eid. "And the Arab countries are in it with them. They are manipulating Islamists. Syria and Lebanon are the only two countries protecting minorities in the Middle East."
When we ask him about the Syrian revolution and democratic aspirations, he says: "Where is there more democracy, in Saudi Arabia where women can't drive, or in Syria? Everybody is focusing on Syria. It's a Western and Arab conspiracy." Then he threatens: "If it goes on, all of Tripoli will burn."
Reality contradicts this alarmist talk. One night, the Alawite shops in downtown Tripoli were burned down. Was it a Salafist provocation or a ploy by Rifaat Eid's militia to rally the community? no one knows. But the next day, Sunnis expressed their solidarity with the Alawites by demonstrating and the Chamber of Commerce organized a day of mourning throughout the city.
"Tripoli is a deforming mirror," says a French diplomatic source. "It doesn't reflect the situation in the rest of the country. None of the Lebanese political parties want the situation to blow up."
But the Syrian conflict is spilling over into Lebanon. The Syrian Army has bombed Lebanon several times. It has started daily forays into the country and has kidnapped Syrian refugees accused of supporting the Free Syrian Army. In retaliation, Shiites have kidnapped, to be exchanged against the Syrian refugees.
As long as the Syrian conflict goes on, Lebanon will remain on high alert.
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Photo - Laika slips the lead