A Particular Province of Syria: An Enemy Too Near

This article is part 6 of a multi-part series exploring Tripoli, Lebanon. The series is based on Nicholas A. Heras’ extensive experiences in the city between 2006 and 2011, and the continuing lessons its residents have given him. This is the sixth of seven parts.

For much of the world, Tripoli is symbolized by the Jebel Mohsen-Bab al-Tabbaneh conflict. It seems that most of the attention that the city draws to itself is the result of violence that occurs between these feuding northern neighborhoods. The dramatis personae of their conflict are well known: the Alawites of Jebel Mohsen versus the Sunni Muslims of Bab al-Tabbaneh and its allied Sunni-majority districts that surround Jebel Mohsen. Simmering conflict between the two neighborhoods has led to the international perception that they, and by extension the entire city of Tripoli, are locked into an interminable cycle of warfare. Relations between residents of Jebel Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh have become a Geiger counter to forewarn of another vicious sectarian war in Lebanon.

Syria Street is the internationally infamous fault-line that separates the two warring neighborhoods. It is a long thoroughfare inside Bab al-Tabbaneh which borders the sloping hill that climbs into Jebel Mohsen. The road is a popular destination for many of Tripoli’s lower classes due to its cheap markets such as the large and crowded Bab al-Tabbaneh market, its low-cost automobile garages, and its affordably priced restaurants. Several Sunni mosques, including the large Bab al-Tabbaneh Mosque and smaller Salafist mosques, are built on the street and are popular with local residents. These active houses of worship have become major centers of anti-Assad political activity in Tripoli.

This thoroughfare is heavily patrolled by the Lebanese military, which has a well-established system of checkpoints and a series of tank and machine-gun operations all along the street. Syria Street is typical of Lebanese sectarian firing lines in that it is surrounded by lively, crowded neighborhoods that are clothed by battle damage. Both sides of the avenue are badly mauled, with heavy caliber bullet holes and RPG burns decorating the sides of still inhabited apartment buildings.

An Old Grudge and a Modern Battle

The Jebel Mohsen-Bab al-Tabbaneh conflict has its origins in the socio-economic rivalry and sectarian suspicions that are held between Alawites and Sunnis who migrated to Tripoli from natal villages in the Akkar. Many of these Akkari migrants arrived in the northern suburbs of Tripoli, and settled in and near modern-day Jebel Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh. A majority of the Alawite population in the Akkar came to settle in Jebel Mohsen, establishing a sectarian enclave in the district that made it the largest and most important center for the Alawite community and its social solidarity in all of Lebanon. Sunnis and Alawites at first fought fiercely with each other for wage labor. The best positions in this came from newly established urban contacts developed by their sectarian peers that had earlier settled in the city. Competition between the Sunni Muslim and Alawite communities in Tripoli was made worse by the dominant stereotypes that they held of each other’s customs.

Alawites practice a religion that evolved from Shi’a Islam, and which is distinguished from the orthodox Sunni faith by the Alawites’ veneration of the Imam Ali and his family, a belief in the reincarnation of souls, the celebration of holidays associated with other religions such as Christmas and Nowruz, and a belief in the ascension of particularly worthy souls as stars in heaven, amongst other nuances of their faith. Many conservative Sunni critics of the Alawites view them as dangerous apostates that spurned the true teachings of Islam for a false religion. The Alawite stereotype of Sunnis in turn is that of fanatic representatives of a series of historically aggressive and oppressive Sunni-dominated states that at best heavily taxed and at worst actively sought to kill Alawites.

Economic competition and sectarian misconceptions of the “Other” led to haphazard fighting between the two communities during the Lebanese Civil War. The Syrian military’s intervention in the war, and its subsequent occupation of portions of Lebanon from 1976-2005, led to the exacerbation of these long-held socio-economic and sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli. This was made worse due to the common Tripolian Sunni perception that Alawites received preferential treatment, at least nominally, from the occupying Syrian military under the command of Syrian Alawite officers as a result of the Alawite community’s political support of the al-Assad government.

The political differences vis-à-vis the al-Assad government that are held between Alawites and Sunnis in Tripoli is an important, but not the most important, aspect of these communities’ conflict. Sectarian ill will is the major source of conflict between Sunnis and Alawites in the northern neighborhoods of Tripoli. Appeals to sectarian sentiment provide a rallying “battle cry” for the most militant members of both communities. This existential conflict of faith-based social organization makes the fighting between Jebel Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh, a seemingly intractable war of identity and communal survival.

Enemies Close to Home
Jebel Mohsen is the reputedly insular (its critics would call it “xenophobic”), majority Alawite stronghold of 60,000 people. Although physically situated on the “high ground” of a towering hill that overlooks Bab al-Tabbaneh, Jebel Mohsen is surrounded on all sides by hostile neighborhoods. These include Ibbe and Beddawi, which are reported to be centers of armament and organization for Lebanese Salafist fighters and Syrian armed opposition members. In the event of a protracted conflict with its neighbors, the entire community of Jebel Mohsen could be cut off and placed under siege.

The neighborhood of Jebel Mohsen is politically dominated by the pro-Assad, Syrian Ba’ath Party-inspired, Arab Democratic Party (ADP). Ali Eid and his son Rifaat lead the ADP, and it maintains a small but effective militia called the “Red Knights” under the command of Rifaat. It is the Red Knights that engage in periodic combat with the anti-Assad Lebanese Sunni political parties, and now Syrian armed opposition members, that predominate in the Sunni-majority areas surrounding Jebel Mohsen. Matching its constituency in Jebel Mohsen, the ADP has evolved into an almost exclusively Alawite political party that represents the majority of Tripoli’s, and by extension, Lebanese Alawites.Politically supportive of the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria, the ADP and its constituency in Jebel Mohsen hold a strikingly nuanced view of the internal political realities of Lebanon, and are cognizant of their role in the geo-political balance of power in the broader Levant.

As the conflict between the al-Assad government and the Syrian armed opposition within Syria increases in its intensity, the ADP has been taking a stronger and more militant stance in support of the al-Assad government and Alawite sectarian rights in the face of rising hostility towards the Alawite community by its Sunni neighbors. It is also well aware of the potentially extinctive ramifications for the Lebanese Alawite community that would result from defeat in extended and extensive warfare between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli.

Tripoli is a politically important city in the context of Lebanese Sunni politics and anti-Assad sentiment. A large number of the city’s Sunni Muslim population was opposed to the Syrian military occupation of Lebanon from 1976-2005, and many of Tripoli’s Sunnis fought against the Syrian military inside and around the city at various points in time during the occupation. Militant Lebanese Salafist fighters viewed the Syrian military, even its conscript Sunni and Christian soldiers, as displaying kufr (disbelief in God) by supporting an apostate government commanded by Alawites.

This sentiment has since been transferred to the nearest “agents” of the Syrian government in Tripoli, the Alawite community in Jebel Mohsen, and has intensified due to the bloodshed of Syrian Sunni civilians in the Syrian uprising. The Alawites of Tripoli are thus indicted by their sectarian commonality and political sympathy with the al-Assad family and its closest allies in the Syrian security forces.

Bab al-Tabbaneh is a teeming Sunni Muslim-majority neighborhood that is infamous for being the recruiting ground for a whole generation of militant Salafist partisans and the front-line battleground for the mainstream Lebanese Sunni-majority political parties. These include parties such as the Future Party and supporters of the current Lebanese Prime Minister and Tripoli native Najib Miqati, looking to bolster their political image of practicing muscular Sunni sectarianism. Unable to attack the al-Assad government directly due to distance, exile, and the still imposing power of the Syrian military, an increasing number of Lebanese and Syrian armed opposition fighters view their neighbors, the al-Assad ally, ADP and its Alawite constituency, as a convenient “near enemy.” Sectarian warriors in Bab al-Tabbaneh and its allied districts surrounding Jebel Mohsen can engage in relatively costless combat, compared to the scale of casualties in Syria, and are only separated by meters, rather than hundreds of kilometers, from their enemy.

Never Far From Syria
Tripoli’s conflict has become even more magnified in the global imagination since the beginning of the Syrian uprising. As a result of the uprising, there has been a large influx of anti-Assad Syrian refugees and opposition members, some of them armed, into Tripoli. Many of these Syrians have come to live in the affordable Sunni-majority neighborhoods that surround Jebel Mohsen such as Bab al-Tabbaneh, Beddawi, and Ibbe. In some of these areas, such as Bab al-Tabbaneh and Ibbe, anti-Assad demonstrations occur weekly, and are viewed as provocative displays of sectarian fury towards Alawites.

The fighting between Jebel Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh were once regarded by analysts of the Levant as a template of the manner in which tensions in neighboring and competitive districts could be exacerbated into a shooting war by sectarian and geo-political differences. The specific combatant communities in the Jebel Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh fighting, Alawites and Sunni Muslims, were held to be particularly applicable to Syria because of the existing tensions between the Alawite-dominated Syrian Ba’ath Party government and a politically restive Sunni majority population.

This template of sectarian ill will and bloodshed is now a gruesome reality throughout Syria. An example of this development is Tripoli’s sister city in Syria, Homs, which is now demonstrating some of the same patterns of sectarian turmoil between Alawites and Sunni Muslims as Tripoli. Syrian government-linked militias called the shabiha (ghosts), which are believed to be a majority Alawite, are reported to have used Alawite neighborhoods in Homs, such as Zahra, to attack neighboring Sunni-majority districts such as Karm al-Zaytoun that are held in rebellion by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The shabiha evolved from criminal syndicates that smuggled people and goods throughout the Levant, especially into Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon, and included Syrians, Turks, and Lebanese of all sectarian affiliations. One result of these cross-border activities was the development of significant relationships between Alawite shabiha and militiamen amongst Jebel Mohsen’s Alawite community, and Sunni shabiha and militant Salafist Sunni networks in Lebanon.

Ironically, Syrians and Lebanese attempting to smuggle FSA fighters and weapons for the armed opposition’s war efforts inside of Syria to fight against the military and its allied shabiha are utilizing the same smuggling routes as their former Lebanese and Syrian Alawite shabiha compatriots. Tripoli’s Alawites, as a community, are now derogatively referred to as "shabiha" by their Lebanese and Syrian Sunni foes, further indicating the corrosive effect that the Syrian uprising is having upon tenuous communal relations in Tripoli.

More Than Kin, Less Than Kind
The people of Jebel Moshen and Bab al-Tabbeneh have more in common than their political and sectarian differences might at first indicate. They both suffer from the same fear of economic depression, lack of public infrastructure, and a crowded local labor market that is depreciating wages and purchasing power. Both communities are experiencing an increasingly crumbling quality of life. The young men of Jebel Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh are migrating in greater numbers to Beirut for better labor opportunities, in the hope of someday affording their own apartment to be able to marry and start families. In the working-class districts, in the Beirut suburbs where these young men live, they more often than not mingle freely with one another, shedding the skin of sectarian hostility they held in Tripoli, for the common solidarity of Beirut’s urban proletariat.

Residents of both neighborhoods shop mostly at the same low-cost markets and dine at the same affordable restaurants that are common to their neighborhoods. Many of the people of Jebel Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh are co-workers and fellow students that hold a common, proud Trablusi (Tripolian) identity. They even vacation in many of the same popular locations in the regions surrounding the city: such as in the Christian-majority town of Zgharta, northeast of Tripoli, and Ayoon al-Samak (Eye of the Fish) in the Akkar. The residents of Jebel Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh are more than kin, but seemingly less than kind to one another.

Read the final part of Nicholas A. Heras' multi-part series exploring Tripoli, Lebanon on July 26.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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