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A Particular Province of Syria: “Fallujah on the Water?”

This article is part 3 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 third of seven parts.

Tripoli's reputation can make it an intimidating place to travel to for the first-time visitor. The sporadic violence in neighborhoods in the outlying districts of Tripoli is an instant and enduring international headline. Often, Tripoli is portrayed as a parable of Middle Eastern geo-political disaster and an example of the perniciousness of sectarian communal violence and ideological extremism in Lebanon. The city, in spite of its relative sectarian diversity, is derisively nick-named "Fallujah on the Water" by some of its local critics. This is a reference to Fallujah, Iraq and its role as a strongly contested battleground and a locus of armed Sunni resistance during the occupation of Iraq following the defeat of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003. The perception of Tripoli as a center of militant Sunni Islamism is based upon the aesthetics of public space in many neighborhoods of the city, the armed Sunni Islamist groups in certain areas in and around the city, and due to its recent history.

Waving the Black Flag: Tripoli, the Stronghold of Muslims

In the Lebanese popular imagination, Tripoli is an unabashedly "Sunni city." Although the majority of the city's population is Sunni Muslim, it is the use of the public space in Tripoli by politicized majority-Sunni parties that crafts this image. Public space in Tripoli is clustered with slogans and flags of both the Sunni-majority Future Movement headed by the former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and several smaller Islamist organizations, a number of whom are conservative Salafists. It is in the use of public space and in the presentation of its urban environment, that Tripoli garners the most immediate and fearful reaction from visitors.

Many of its neighborhoods prominently display a plain black flag, simply adorned with white Arabic calligraphic letters stating: "There is No God but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God." The flag is frequently associated with Salafist groups throughout the region. It often indicates the bearers' willingness to strive (militarily if needed) to establish and uphold a society governed by the strictures of a conservative interpretation of the Qur'an, and in the recorded sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. The allusion to Fallujah is also a result of the flag's strong resemblance to the flag of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. It is this black "Banner of the Prophet" that has become the most enduring, and discussed public symbol in Tripoli.

The Salafist flags are a common sight in the city, and are hung on the front of apartment buildings and storefronts in many neighborhoods, particularly in Beddawi, Ibbe, and Bab Al-Tabbaneh. Street "medians" consisting of a barrel with the flag are also common throughout these neighborhoods. Along with these street medians the black flag is painted on the walls of some buildings as a quick and easy means to delineate "liberated" territory; liberated, in the minds of the most conservative Salafists, from the Bashar Al-Assad government in Syria and the Lebanese government which does Al-Assad's bidding. The black flag, it should be noted, is also freely available for purchase in some of Tripoli's stores. Significantly, it has been bought by a number of international tourists and visitors to the city.

In contemporary Tripoli, this black, Salafist "battle-flag" is commonly associated with anti-Assad, pro-Syrian opposition Salafist movements who are actively supporting members of the armed Syrian opposition and engaging in combat against pro-Assad Alawite fighters in the Bab Al Tabbaneh, Ibbe, and Jebel Mohsen firing zones. Although there is a great deal of truth to this political stereotype, geo-political considerations and internal Lebanese politics have driven some of Tripoli's Salafist groups towards an alliance with the pro-Assad, Hezbollah-led Axis of Resistance political bloc.

Many of the Salafist flags belong to the Tawheed (Oneness of God) Movement and Jam’at Islamiyya (Islamic Groups), which are parties who are currently allied with Syria. Similar to elsewhere in Lebanon, local rivalries and ideological differences provide ripe opportunity for a large number of unlikely political alliances. Sectarianism, however, especially between Sunni Muslims and Alawites, remains an important organizing factor for the violence in Tripoli.

Several public monuments in Tripoli are also a site for the attestation of its “Islamic” character and further add to the city's reputation. The most infamous example of these public monuments is a large monument represented by the Arabic word for God, Allah, written in Arabic letters. The monument is placed in the center of Seehat Nour (Divine Light Square). Seehat Nouris the first roundabout running south to north that directs the flow of traffic on Tripoli's largest road, Fouad Shehab Street. Most travelers from Beirut are welcomed to the city by the square.

Erected in the median in the square, the large, black Salafist flag-adorned monument not only spells out the name of God in Arabic. Written underneath it is a large inscription that states: "Tripoli: The Fortress of Muslims." The presence of the monument at the gates of Tripoli is derisively viewed by some Lebanese as an affirmation that the majority of Tripoli's population is comprised of Islamist militants who view themselves as separate from the rest of the country.

Battleground Tripoli: The Soon-to-Be Islamic Caliphate of the North

Along with the public aesthetics of space in Tripoli, the currently active, if somewhat overhyped, and not always mutually cooperative, network of Salafist movements add to the area's reputation as a source of militant Sunni Islam. These networks exist in certain neighborhoods of Tripoli, such as Bab Al-Tabbaneh, Beddawi, and Ibbe, and in its close environs’, such as in the Akkar villages of Dinneyeh and Minneyeh.

Tripoli's Salafists are often linked with international, militant Sunni Islamist aspirations to create a world-wide "Islamic Caliphate," with some of these groups proposing that the first stones of the fortress of Islam be laid in Tripoli and northern Lebanon. Indeed, occasional threats against the city's Christian population by fiery and militantly ambitious Salafist fighters, can lead to heightened fears that a return to Christian-Muslim sectarian conflict is imminent. These threats are often made by leaflets and by anonymous individuals, and they result in the heavy presence of Lebanese military personnel in front of Tripoli's churches.

Militant Sunni Islamist groups from Tripoli and the Akkar have been accused of funneling local and foreign jihadists to fight coalition forces in Iraq. Reportedly, during and after the Syrian military's occupation of Lebanon until 2005, foreign and local Salafist fighters were allowed to recruit, organize, and raise funds in northern Lebanon, with the knowledge of all concerned local parties; Lebanese (such as the anti-Assad Future Movement), Syrian, and other international parties. As long as the Salafist groups agreed to focus their energies and operations in Iraq, and not to operate within Lebanon's borders against the Syrian military and its partners, they were tolerated. Ironically, these same groups and their networks are reportedly being utilized in support of the armed Syrian opposition against the Al-Assad government inside Syria by providing experienced fighters, weapons, and money.

Tripoli and its environs' recent history of being the site of operations conducted by armed Islamist groups, such as Fatah Al Islam (Conquest of Islam) has also not helped its public perception. The city's history has sometimes been portrayed internationally and locally as a long dirge of impending chaos and radical Sunni Islamist-perpetrated violence.

Besides the consistent, if spasmodic, politicized sectarian fighting between Sunni Muslims and Alawites in the Jebel Mohsen and Bab Al-Tabbaneh neighborhoods, Tripoli fulfilled the role as a battlefield in the global War on Terror in 2007. In May of that year, the reportedly Al-Qaeda inspired Fatah Al-Islam armed movement performed bank robberies in Tripoli and launched a series of attacks against Lebanese army checkpoints outside of the movement's base, inside the Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp nine miles north of Tripoli. Fatah Al-Islam was comprised of Palestinian, Lebanese, and foreign fighters that sought to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Tripoli and the Akkar. Nahr Al-Bared was at the time one of the most important centers of economic activity for the Lebanese and Palestinians in the entire Tripoli region.

The resulting siege of the Nahr Al-Bared camp by the Lebanese Army lasted until September 2007, resulting in the deaths of 170 soldiers with a further 500 wounded, the deaths and capture of over 450 Fatah Al-Islam and its allied movement Jund Al-Sham (Soldiers of the Levant) fighters, while destroying large sections of the camp. The siege caused almost all of the camp’s nearly 30,000 – primarily Palestinian refugees – population to flee to the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Beddawi, a northern suburb of Tripoli. Several Fatah Al-Islam members retreated from the camp, and were believed to be hiding in the Beddawi refugee camp closer to Tripoli proper and in the Ain El Helweh Palestinian camp in the city of Saidon, south of Beirut.

Many of Nahr Al-Bared’s residents have yet to return to the camp, with a large number of them eking out their existence in the Beddawi camp and in the suburb surrounding it.

The Battle of Nahr Al-Bared was the most intense campaign the Lebanese Army has waged since the end of the Civil War in 1990, and is widely remembered and intensely honored in the battle-rolls of the military. It was the siege of Nahr Al-Bared, more than any other event in the city's recent history that cemented Tripoli's global and local reputation as a haven of radical Islamists and as at the beating pulse of jihad in the region.

This is an unfair assumption, because many Tripolians, including many of the currently active, local Salafist fighters, were angered by Fatah Al-Islam and its willingness to carry out its jihad inside Tripoli and in the surrounding area against fellow Muslims that it stated it wanted to protect. They were also angered by the high number of casualties suffered by Lebanese soldiers from the nearby Akkar in Nahr Al-Bared. Many Tripolians are either originally from the villages of the Akkar, or have close relatives in the villages of the Akkar. These reasons combined with the armed robberies, and general state of fear that Fatah Al-Islam struck in many Tripolians, diminished most of the support it might have had with the indigenous militant Salafist groups in the area.

In spite of the posturing in support of international jihad by some of the Salafist groups in and around Tripoli, Tripolians are fiercely loyal to their local identity and pride in their city and the regions around it. To many Tripolians, Fatah Al-Islam was a foreign front staffed mainly by foreign fighters. The pretension of international jihad was removed when Fatah Al-Islam turned its weapons on Tripolians.

The blow to Tripoli’s good name and the confidence of its people aside, the warfare and destruction of Nahr Al-Bared also weakened the area’s economy by displacing some of its most productive economic actors, both Lebanese and Palestinian. This forced them into a more tenuous position as itinerant laborers in Tripoli's already crowded lower-wage labor market that included Lebanese, Syrian and south Asian guest workers, and Iraqi refugees. The resulting deprecation in local wages combined with Tripoli's stagnant economy and Lebanon’s high cost of living, has put enormous economic pressure on a large number of Tripolians, of all sectarian affiliations. All Tripolians, whether they are Sunni Muslim, Alawite, Christian, Lebanese or foreigner, face the same existential struggles. It is this endemic economic recession in Tripoli that is the most serious threat to the city's well-being.

Read part four of Nicholas A. Heras' multi-part series exploring Tripoli, Lebanon, on July 5.

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