Lebanon sucked in Syria crisis (BBC) British Broadcasting Company) By Jim Muir BBC News, Tripoli, Lebanon 29 June 2012 Last updated at 22:02 GMT)
BBC} BRITISH BROADCASTING COMPANY
BBC} BRITISH BROADCASTING COMPANY Articles-Index-Top
Nowhere is the stress exerted on Lebanon by the Syrian crisis more
apparent than in Tripoli, the country´s second city.
Like Syria´s other neighbours - Turkey, Iraq and Jordan - Lebanon has
absorbed thousands of refugees fleeing from the conflict now raging
on the other side of the border.
But unlike the other countries, Lebanon risks being plunged into
sectarian strife, possibly even civil war, by the strains inflicted
on its own delicate internal situation by the Syrian crisis.
If there is a spark that sets off a wider conflagration in the
country, it is most likely to come from Tripoli, where blood has
already been spilled.
The majority of the city´s 500,000 or so inhabitants are Sunnis, most
of whom naturally side with the uprising across the border in Syria,
which has taken root mainly in the country´s Sunni areas.
But there is a small but tough minority of Alawites, perhaps 35,000
strong, mainly concentrated in the hilltop Jebel Mohsen quarter.
They share the same obscure faith as the ruling clan of Bashar al-
Assad in Syria - an occult offshoot of Shia Islam - and most of them
strongly support the Syrian regime.
More than 20 people have been killed in clashes in Tripoli this year
Symbols of struggle
It is not a theoretical alliance.
During the Syrian military presence in Lebanon (from 1976 until 2005)
Alawite leaders in Tripoli worked closely with the Syrians and fought
on their behalf in various proxy battles over the years.
The main Lebanese Alawite faction, the Arab Democratic Party led by
Rifaat Eid, is strongly linked to Damascus and is widely believed to
receive arms and even instructions from the regime.
Twice already this year, there have been bouts of fighting along a
civil war front line between Jebel Mohsen and Bab al-Tebbaneh - the
adjacent Sunni district.
More than 20 people have been killed in clashes which nobody doubts
were related to the Syrian conflict, though there were conflicting
Sunnis accused the Alawites and Damascus of stirring up the trouble
to divert attention from Syria´s internal struggle and to warn the
Sunnis against allowing Tripoli to become a rear base for the Syrian
rebels, which it effectively is.
Alawites accused the Sunnis of trying to impose a Salafi
(fundamentalist) emirate and of arming and financing the Syrian
Sunnis. Rifaat Eid even suggested that the only solution was to
invite the Syrian army in to impose order.
Most parts of Tripoli are clearly badged with the symbols of the
In many areas, the black-white-and-green banner of the Syrian
revolution flutters, in places more prominently than Lebanon´s own
But in Jebel Mohsen, the posters are of Mr Assad and his father, the
regime founder Hafez al-Assad, some of them featuring Rifaat Eid.
Buildings on and near Syria Street, which runs along the front line
just on the Sunni side, are pocked and battered by the various bouts
People here are in no two minds about who is to blame.
"Every time we open up and try to work, they shoot at us again, so
people close down again and run away," said Imad, a coffee shop owner.
"It´s all down to Bashar al-Assad. He promised that if Syria doesn´t
have security, he´ll set fire to the whole Middle East. Now he´s
started with Lebanon, then it´ll be Iraq, Jordan, Turkey.
"He´s killing more than 100 of his own people every day. We´re with
the people who are being killed for no reason," Imad added.
There are widespread fears that more clashes between Alawites and
Sunnis in Tripoli could spread along the sectarian and political
fault lines that run through the country.
The Alawites may be a small minority, but they are connected to a
Syrian-backed alliance which includes the Shia factions Hezbollah and
Amal, as well as some Christian groups - among them the northern
warlord Suleiman Franjieh in nearby Zgharta.
"All the elements of a civil war are present," said Samer Annous, a
university lecturer and civil society activist.
"Poverty, rage among many people over things that are happening in
Syria, sectarian divisions, corruption in government, the total
collapse of the whole system.
"It´s just a pity to see our city again having to pay for the wars of
others, regional powers including the Gulf states and the Syrians,"
Mr Anbnous said.
There is a widespread perception that a proxy struggle is already
taking place, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar pouring funds into Tripoli
through a proliferation of Salafi Islamist groups which have become
increasingly active on the ground.
"It seems that there is a kind of competition between Qatar and Saudi
Arabia to control the Sunni street in Lebanon, and especially in
Tripoli," said Ziad al-Ayyoubi, another civil society activist.
"This is also directly related to the Syrian revolution. Qatar is the
lead country in the Gulf supporting the Syrian rebels. It seems that
it is using Tripoli and north Lebanon to get access to Syria. There
are a lot of expensive new weapons on the front line here, and
they´re not left over from the civil war."
One of the best-known Salafi leaders in Tripoli, Shaikh Daai al-Islam
al-Shahhal, also stressed the regional dimensions of the struggle.
"The end of the criminal regime in Syria is absolutely inevitable,"
"That will deal a huge blow to the Safavid [Iranian] project of which
it is a cornerstone. It will shake the Iranian and Iraqi regimes, and
the allies of the Syrian regime in Lebanon."
Chief among those allies is Hezbollah, the most powerful force in
Lebanon, including the Lebanese army.
Hezbollah´s reaction to a Syrian collapse would set the frame for
what happens next in Lebanon.
Mr Shahhal said he believed a conflict was not inevitable.
"I think some voices within Hezbollah organisation will call for
preemptive steps to overturn the table in Lebanon in security terms."
"But there will also be wiser and more aware voices, which may
prevail, arguing that Hezbollah should adjust to the new Lebanese
reality, and content itself with being one of the effective political
parties in Lebanon.
"If they turn back [from the Iranian project], there would be no
problems between them and us," Mr Shahhal said.
Hezbollah has so far been extremely restrained in its attitudes on
the ground in Lebanon, while strongly supporting the Assad regime
There is no impression at present that it is spoiling for a fight,
and when 11 Lebanese Shia pilgrims were abducted by Sunni rebels in
northern Syria two months ago - they are still being held - it
discouraged its supporters from making trouble to press for their
But one man who believes civil war is already here is Hussein Ali, an
88-year-old Alawite shopkeeper who has lived in Tripoli all his life.
One of his shops was recently attacked and smashed by Sunni thugs who
he believed belonged to organised Salafi groups, part of a campaign
that has sent many Alawites fleeing from mixed areas.
But he refuses to be intimidated, and has reopened.
He is fiercely critical of the local Alawite leaders, who he believes
are encouraging their followers on a suicidal course.
"The Alawite community here is small - they´ll get swallowed up like
candy," he said.
"When the politics change, and the support from Syria goes,
Hezbollah´s influence will go too. The Alawites here seem to believe
the Assad family in Syria is there forever. They´ve made a mistake.
But that doesn´t mean they deserve to be killed." (© BBC MMXII
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY