This article is part 5 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 fifth of seven parts.
Tripoli is a city of hope for more than just the residents who live within its boundaries. Many of the city’s daily visitors live in the nearby Akkar. This area to Tripoli’s immediate north, stretches 398 square miles from the Mediterranean coast to the Lebanese border with the Tartus Governorate in Syria, and east to its border with Syria’s Homs Governorate. Generally an underdeveloped and seemingly forgotten area of Lebanon, the Akkar has been thrown into the spotlight of international attention due to violence in neighboring Syria.
The Akkar and the Syrian Uprising
Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, the Akkar has been the site of furious Lebanese political mobilization against the Bashar al-Assad government, and host to a growing number of Syrian refugees fleeing the fighting between the armed opposition and government forces throughout the Homs Governorate. 123 miles from Tripoli, Homs is the nearest other major city, for the majority of the Akkar population.
Over the course of the Syrian uprising more than 26,000 Syrians have fled into Lebanon, of which more than three-fourths were women and children, according to the United Nations. A large number of Syrian refugees moving into Lebanon use the Akkar to transit into the country, or have settled in areas throughout the Akkar and in and around Tripoli. Many of the Syrian refugees have settled with sympathetic Lebanese hosts who are generally anti-Assad. Lebanese and Syrian smugglers are reported to be working with considerable difficulty to smuggle fighters, weapons, and materiel into Syria through the Akkar. The training of armed Syrian opposition members by experienced, anti-Assad Lebanese fighters is also reported in the Akkar.
The Akkar, like Tripoli, also has a reputation for Sunni Salafist militancy. It is reported that the Akkar was the site of a substantial amount of Sunni jihadist recruitment for the Iraqi insurgency against the United States and Iranian linked Shi’a Muslim militias in Iraq. Some districts of the Akkar — such as the near-suburbs of Tripoli Minneyeh and Dinneyeh, the south-eastern Akkari village of Bebnine, Halba in the central Akkar, and Wadi Jamoos in the eastern Akkar — are generally cited by Tripolians and Akkaris as having active Salafist networks. These networks are rumored to be involved in the Bab Al-Tabbaneh and Jebel Mohsen fighting in Tripoli, and to have contributed fighters and weapons for urban combat between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims in Beirut’s southern and central districts. The Akkar region is thus key to understanding the contemporary and likely future state of Lebanon’s geo-political relations and its internal security.
From the Farm to Tripoli
The Akkar is a primarily agricultural region with the highest rate of poverty in Lebanon. Its population is slightly higher than 250,000. Around 80% of Akkaris are employed in some type of farming labor. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), more than 63% of residents in the Akkar live at or below the poverty line. Infrastructure in the region is severely lacking, characterized by damaged roads, unreliable electrical and sewage connections to homes, understaffed schools that are desperately in need of repair, and nearly non-existent hospital and medical care. Akkaris seeking all but the most basic medical checkups must make the journey to Tripoli, or, especially before the Syrian uprising began, to the city of Homs.
The majority of the Akkar's population is Sunni Muslim, with a minority of Christians and Alawites. Its largest city is Halba, which is approximately 16 miles north of Tripoli. The economy of the Akkar is heavily dependent upon Tripoli as its major market town and as the primary source of demand for its excess wage labor. Wages in Tripoli are generally better and the work more consistent than in the Akkar, although the wages are not as high as in Beirut. Tripoli’s comparatively cheaper cost of living and its closer proximity to the Akkar, however, offset this disadvantage.
Most Akkaris working in Tripoli choose to rent a cot in a shared room in an apartment in one of Tripoli’s hay sha’abi (popular neighborhoods), particularly in the northern areas of Beddawi and Bab Al-Tabbaneh. The cost of rent and daily food in the city is comparatively cheaper than commuting from the villages of the Akkar to Tripoli every day. Akkaris in these neighborhoods, the overwhelming majority of whom are Sunni Muslim, are easily integrated into the local communities, and often marry into Sunni Tripolian families. The remittances that are brought to the villages of the Akkar by Akkaris working as wage laborers in Tripoli, are essential to the daily survival of many families in the area.
Some laborers from the Akkar travel to Tripoli on a daily basis in spite of the nearly prohibitive cost of a group van or shared taxi from Halba, the Akkar’s major transportation hub, to the Beddawi and Bab Al-Tabbaneh neighborhoods. The majority of Akkaris that commute from their villages to Tripoli on a daily basis are generally required to make a stop in Halba, switch taxis or vans, and then proceed south to Tripoli. This is a pricey process that can cost $5 a day, a considerable amount for the majority of the Akkar’s economically struggling population.
Many of Tripoli’s Sunni Muslims and Alawites can trace their origins to the Akkar, and Sunni Muslims in particular maintain active links to their ancestral villages in the region. Tripolians seeking a cheap family vacation often travel to the Akkar, including the nearby resort of Ayoon al-Samak (Eyes of the Fish), which has a waterfall flowing amidst sweeping foothills and green valleys no more than a half hour car ride from Tripoli. The movement to and from Tripoli and to the Akkar, is consistent and further draws the Akkar into the general metropolitan area of Tripoli.
From Syria to the Akkar
Syria has both a strong historical and present influence on the people of the Akkar. The Akkar has had especially strong social and cultural links to Tripoli’s "sister city" of Homs in the Homs Governorate, serving as a route of entry from the hinterlands of Homs to the Mediterranean port of Tripoli. The area stretching from Tripoli to Homs lies in a fertile agricultural zone from Tripoli on the Mediterranean to Homs on the Orontes River. In both the Akkar and Homs Governorate, the most important economic activities are agricultural, including raising and processing crops in light industry, and shipping agricultural products via trucks. The Akkar is a popular route for cargo trucks moving from the Mediterranean port of Tripoli and the Syrian ports of Latakia and Tartus, inland to the cities of Homs and Hama.
Additionally, a significant number of Syria’s excess agricultural labor is resident in the Akkar and the regions that form the immediate suburbs of Tripoli. Although Syrian guest workers have been migrating to Lebanon for decades in pursuit of higher wages, their movement into Lebanon became more intense following the near collapse of the agricultural economy in the eastern and south-western regions of Syria. This process has been heightened during the last decade due to a historically difficult drought, government mismanagement, corrupt use of water resources in these regions, and the inflation of the price of existential goods throughout Syria.
Unemployed and hungry rural Syrians moved from the eastern and south-western regions of the country to western cities, particularly Damascus and Aleppo, but also to the smaller, traditionally agriculturally-oriented cities of Homs and Hama that historically had high demand for farm labor. The excess labor pool in Homs and Hama, caused by the migration of unemployed and hungry rural Syrians, has put enormous stress on the menial service sector in these cities. Insufficient work opportunities, especially in and around Homs, are pushing Syrian agricultural workers into the Akkar region and Tripoli. Syrian refugees that have settled in the Akkar and Tripoli over the course of the uprising have added to the number of desperate Syrians seeking work in the local economy.
These Syrians join Palestinians from the destroyed Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, north of Tripoli in the Akkar. These Syrians become the main “foreign” competitors to Lebanese laborers in the north. Nahr Al-Bared’s destruction during fighting between the militant Islamist organization Fatah al-Islam (Victory of Islam) and the Lebanese Army in 2007 removed one of the Akkar’s most vibrant markets and one of the best and most consistent sources of income for Palestinians in the area. As a result, many Palestinians from Nahr Al-Bared settled in the nearby Beddawi camp in the Beddawi district of Tripoli, adding to the city’s labor crisis. Competition between Syrians, the Lebanese, and Palestinians in the Akkar and Tripoli, combined with a deteriorating local economy in northern Lebanon, is putting enormous socio-economic strain on the poor and on working class Akkaris and Tripolians. This competition of labor is felt like an economic tremor that is shaking Tripoli.
The Akkar, like Tripoli, has become another, if particular, province of Syria over the course of the Syrian uprising. Syrian refugees and armed opposition members are out of the sights of the Syrian military in the Akkar and often receive support from its local population. This is a source of significant strategic depth for the Syrian opposition, both politically and militarily. The Akkar, an impoverished area of Lebanon dependent upon Tripoli, has great importance for the future development, and potential victory, of the Syrian uprising.
Read part 6 of Nicholas A. Heras' multi-part series exploring Tripoli, Lebanon on July 19.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.