TRIPOLI, Lebanon — On the road into Tripoli from the south, Lebanon’s condo- and casino-dotted coastline rises sharply inland to hills crowded with apartments, churches and mosques. Cable cars running to the high ground provide spectacular views of the turquoise Mediterranean to the west, and of Beirut to the south.
Further on, as traffic enters Tripoli, a reassuring sign overhead reads: “Relax, you are in Al-Mina, the city of waves and horizon.”
Al-Mina is the name for the section of the city surrounding the pristine harbor, where tourists can take boat trips to islands in the Mediterranean, under the shadow of the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, the 1,000-year-old former Crusader stronghold. On the weekend of July 27-27, the siren call of this would-be paradise was drowned out by barrages of gunfire and explosions. Sunni and Alawite militias took to the streets to fight and, with the U.S.-backed Lebanese Army slow to intervene, by July 29 bombed-out buildings and bullet-pocked walls were visible on either side of the city’s Sunni-Alawite divide.
“Be careful, there are snipers up there,” a Lebanese Army officer told this reporter – at the time scanning the hillside with his camera while searching for evocative imagery of the conflict. “You cannot relax for long here,” he said, in ironic counterpoint to the Al-Mina sign, before barking a reminder that photos of Army personnel or positions were forbidden.
Sectarian fighting, of course, is nothing new to Lebanon. But there’s more to Tripoli’s recent skirmishes than a local Sunni-Alawite (read Shiite) face-off.
Shops and other property along the sectarian divide have been vandalized and looted. The street dividing the two neighborhoods, one of Tripoli’s main souk areas, is usually packed with people, cheek by jowl. Since the fighting, however, after nine were killed and more than 50 wounded, it’s been a ghostly quiet. The most recent skirmishes brought the total dead since June to 25.
Exactly who is fighting whom, and why, remains unclear.
With Shiite-dominated Hezbollah emboldened by recent political gains, and by a successful military incursion into west Beirut in May, Sunni-Shiite tensions in Lebanon are on a knife-edge.
Though they make up no more than 10 percent of Syria’s population, Alawites form the core of that country’s ruling Baathists. Lebanese Sunnis fear Syria is behind the Alawite mini-insurgency in Tripoli, a possibility which cannot be discounted given Syria’s history of influence in the small country to its southwest, and its support for Hezbollah.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem met Lebanese President Michel Suleiman in Beirut in mid July, pledging that Damascus would officially recognize the Lebanese state. Still, former Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karami told the Daily Star recently that there is a “conspiracy against Tripoli” and that a third party is pitting the “sons of one city” against each other “in an attempt to promote sectarian strife.”
At the same time, “Sunni fighters could be sending a message that Syria’s diplomatic niceties are not to be trusted,” said Ahmad Moussalli, a professor of political science at the American University in Beirut.
The Heritage Foundation’s Ariel Cohen is more alarmist. “Syria, Iran and Hezbollah will eat the Sunnis and March 14 for breakfast,” he wrote via e-mail from Washington.
In an interview at one of Tripoli’s renowned Hallab confectionaries, Sunni politician Bassam Khodar Agha, president of the Free Lebanese Movement, said he also believed that “outside interests are trying to manipulate the situation in Tripoli,” but did not mention Syria by name. The Free Lebanese Movement supports the pro-Western March 14 coalition, but is not a formal member.
Back in Beirut, Toni Nissi, head of the International Lebanese Committee for U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, a pro-democracy NGO, was more straightforward. “Syria is the cause of the fighting in Tripoli, no doubt,” he said.
Nissi’s group pushes for the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, adopted in September 2004, which calls for full Lebanese sovereignty over all of the country, the withdrawal of “foreign forces,” and the disarming of militias such as Hezbollah. Hezbollah has accused Nissi of being a Mossad agent.
Aside from accusations about connections to Tripoli’s Alawites, many in this seaside city say that that Syria also sponsored Fatah al-Islam, the radical Salafist group that fought the Lebanese Army in the Nahr-al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, outside Tripoli, during 2007.
Bassam’s Free Lebanese Movement split from Free Patriotic Movement leader Gen. Michel Aoun after the latter signed an agreement with Hezbollah, aligning what is thought to be Lebanon’s largest Christian party with a group that is, according to the United States, Israel, Australia, and the Netherlands, among others, a Syria- and Iran-backed terrorist organization.
But even Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement agrees that there is dangerous game being played in the north. The party’s senior political officer, Alain Aoun, told World Politics Review that “the fighting is not spontaneous, but I don’t want to name anybody as responsible.”
Meanwhile, some observers allege that Saudi money is funding Sunni militias battling the Alawites in Tripoli. Nissi believes that individual Saudis think they are funding a campaign that will damage Hezbollah, but that their involvement only helps further the destabilizing violence that is Syria’s goal in Lebanon.
“They don’t know what they are doing; the Syrians are duping them, letting them pay for their dirty work,” Nissi said of the individual Saudis who are allegedly funding the Sunni side in Tripoli.
The conflict could play into Syrian hands by providing a justification for a Syrian incursion to “stabilize” northern Lebanon. Meanwhile, Sunni fighters in Tripoli may have seen the Lebanese Army’s failure to stop Hezbollah from taking control of Sunni west Beirut in recent weeks as an indication that they needed to take matters into their own hands.
Saad Harriri — son of assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and head of the Future Movement, the Sunni mainstay of the March 14 coalition — “cannot stop the Salafists from fighting. March 14 is now much-weakened. This changes the rules of the Sunni-Shia game in Lebanon,” said Moussalli of the American University in Beirut.
According to David Schenker at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, despite its pro-Western leanings and democratic credentials, Sunni-led but multi-denominational March 14 has not fully convinced the United States of its democratic bona fides, even though Lebanon’s army receives the second-highest amount of U.S. military assistance on a per capita basis.
Bassam believes March 14 has made many mistakes, most notably failing to push for full implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions in Lebanon, which would dissolve Hezbollah into the national army.
Hezbollah’s show of force in Beirut in May was prompted by the March 14-led government’s attempts to crack down on the Shiite militia’s communications network, and to remove the Hezbollah-appointed security chief of the Beirut airport, who was accused of facilitating arms flows from Tehran and Damascus.
With Tel Aviv and Paris engaging with Damascus, and the United States making moves toward increased diplomacy with Iran, could Lebanon’s sovereignty be sacrificed to the larger aims of Israeli security and Iranian denuclearization?
“We are a small country, maybe a bargaining chip, but I do not believe that the international community will allow Syria back into Lebanon,” Bassam optimistically concluded.Show