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Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Lebanon's Little Syria
Bashar al-Assad's enemies and allies are battling it out in the
flashpoint city of Tripoli.
BY EMILE HOKAYEM
Lebanese certainly wished otherwise, but it was only a matter of time before
the bloodshed that has overwhelmed Syria for the past 15 months arrived at
their doorstep. The conflict has now come to the northern Lebanese city of
Tripoli, which possesses a social fabric and history that make it fertile
ground for the long-awaited proxy war between enemies and allies of Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
latest conflagration was triggered by the May 12 arrest of previously unknown
Sunni Islamist activist Shadi al-Mawlawi and five others by Lebanon's General
Security Directorate (GSD). Within hours of Mawlawi's arrest, Sunni protesters
took to the streets, blocked the highway, and burned tires to demand his
immediate release -- a call joined by the city's politicians and clerics. The
standoff soon spiraled out of control: Armed men deployed in the poor Sunni
district of Bab al-Tabbaneh, battling with gunmen of the adjacent district of
Jabal Mohsen, which is inhabited by staunchly pro-Assad members of Lebanon's
small Alawite community. So far, the conflict, which has escalated to include
rocket-propelled grenade and mortar attacks, has left five people dead and more
than 100 wounded.
there's more to this conflict than meets the eye. It seems that GSD officers
mounted a trap -- Mawlawi was lured to a social services center under the
pretext he would receive health care -- and had no valid warrant at the time of
the arrest. The agency later leaked that Mawlawi had returned days ago from
Syria, where he allegedly partook in the rebellion, though it is impossible to
confirm these claims. Lebanon's Sunni prime minister, Najib Mikati, a native of
Tripoli, called the manner of the arrest "unacceptable," adding that
he "rejected and condemned [it]" during a meeting of Lebanon's Higher
Defense Council, the top body in charge of internal and external security.
Notwithstanding this torrent of words, a military prosecutor charged the six men
on May 14 with belonging to an "armed terrorist organization" and
"plotting to carry out terrorist acts inside and outside of Lebanon."
A Lebanese newspaper on May 15 quoted intelligence sources saying Mawlawi
confessed to the accusations.
arresting party is, to say the least, controversial. GSD is one of Lebanon's
many competing security agencies, and it is perceived as the internal arm of
Hezbollah. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who previously served as Hezbollah's and other
Shiite factions' go-to man in military intelligence, heads the organization,
which has a broad mandate that includes monitoring political activity,
foreigners, and the media. An anti-Assad Lebanese parliamentarian on May 14
laid the blame for the conflict squarely at Ibrahim's feet, accusing him of "following
a Syrian agenda in Lebanon."
the absence of any history of impartial justice -- other security agencies are
similarly corrupt and dominated by other sects -- Tripoli residents have
focused their anger on the GSD for overstepping its authority. One friend in
the city angrily asked me on May 14: "Does the Internal Security Forces
[an agency seen as sympathetic to anti-Assad groups and the Sunni community]
dare arrest someone in the south or Dahiyeh [the Hezbollah-controlled suburbs
of Beirut]? No. So why is General Security even operating here?"
own pathologies have been exacerbated by the bloody crisis next door. Northern
Lebanon has been particularly welcoming of the Syrian opposition, rebels and
refugees alike. This is not surprising. The region suffered greatly during the
Syrian occupation of Lebanon, notably in the 1980s when a brutal war arrayed
Islamist and Palestinian factions against the ultimately victorious Syrian
military and its Lebanese Alawite allies.
and the Sunni-dominated north, in general, have predictably become an
anti-Assad and anti-Hezbollah bastion since Syrian troops withdrew in 2005.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, the city and its suburbs have seen
many pro-revolution rallies, and many roads are decorated with anti-Assad
slogans and flags, some espousing extreme sectarian views. Unsurprisingly in
this city on the edge, which is also plagued by poverty and state neglect,
deadly clashes have repeatedly occurred between Sunni and Alawite gunmen in recent
my visits to the areas even closer to the Syrian border, further north and east
of Tripoli, the local population's enthusiasm for the revolution was
unmistakable. This was particularly true in the region of Wadi Khaled, from
where one can see the Syrian city of Homs and which has provided shelter for
many of the refugees fleeing the military crackdown on that city and nearby
villages. In the absence of the state, traditional networks supply the help
needed. Syrian refugees stay in mosques and private homes; members of the Free
Syrian Army regroup and find respite; and injured civilians and rebels receive
medical care and sustenance.
Lebanese allies have tried, unconvincingly, to paint all this activity as the
work of Islamist radicals. Asked about the accusations by the pro-Assad
Lebanese defense minister that al Qaeda was running the smuggling to Syria, a
village chief laughingly responded, "We are doing all what this villain
says, except that we are not al Qaeda or extremists."
has a point: Residents of Wadi Khaled belong to tribes living on both sides of
the border, and they support the Syrian rebels out of kinship rather than
religious ideology. Smugglers in the area once transported cheap Syrian goods
and gasoline into Lebanon -- when the uprising erupted, they simply reversed
the flow. Now they carry everything from weaponry to medical equipment and
drugs across the minefields that the Syrian regime has laid along the border,
bringing goods and supplies to the hot zones around the western Syrian cities
of Homs and Qusayr. It should come as no surprise that the Lebanese Navy
recently seized a ship bound for Tripoli from Libya that was carrying arms
presumably destined for Syria.
more radical Sunnis reside further to the south, in the rugged mountains of
Dinniyeh and in the slums of Tripoli (though, of course, many moderate Sunnis
live alongside them as well). There, the Salafi influence is visible to anyone
who drives through. In December 1999, Islamist militants fought fiercely
against the Lebanese military, backed by Syrian forces. Dozens were killed and
hundreds arrested. In 2007, a shadowy jihadi group, Fatah al-Islam, took over
the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared and battled the Lebanese Army for four
months. Hundreds were killed in vicious fighting, and the camp was almost
entirely destroyed. According to Lebanese intelligence, Fatah al-Islam members
are now fighting alongside the rebellion in Syria, where a few were reportedly
killed in April. The irony is not lost on many Lebanese who suspect, with good
reason, Syrian intelligence of having contributed to its rise.
since Syria's uprising began, Hezbollah and its allies in the Lebanese
government have wanted to see a more forceful state crackdown on anti-Assad
activities. This, however, would fatally destabilize a government over which
they wield decisive influence -- alienating their shrinking number of Sunni
allies at the risk of further inflaming sectarian passions. For his part, Prime
Minister Mikati has tried to tread a thin line between assuaging his Sunni
constituency and his pro-Assad allies in government, touting a shaky policy of
neutrality and "dissociation" from developments in Syria. This has
not prevented Lebanon's security agencies from monitoring, harassing, and even
aiding in the rendition of Syrian dissidents, to the anger of the country's
large anti-Assad constituency.
possibility that the violence in Tripoli will spread across Lebanon remains
limited, but the situation is undeniably deteriorating. Mikati's strategy
depends on the ability and willingness of each faction to control the more
destructive tendencies of its followers. As the case of Tripoli demonstrates,
however, this is easier said than done: Sunni groups, feeling triumphant or
angry, may think (mistakenly) the time is opportune to strike a blow against
their rivals at home, as well as Assad abroad. Hezbollah, militarily strong but
politically on the defensive, may decide that preemptive action is warranted.
Any of the two scenarios would throw Lebanon into a sectarian hell.
descent into violence reveals two other ominous trends: the fragmentation of
Sunni politics and the weakening of its mainstream politicians. Mikati, who
came to power by displacing the vehemently anti-Assad Saad Hariri in January
2011, is one contender for the loyalties of Lebanon's Sunnis, as is the
Lebanese finance minister, Mohammad Safadi, another Tripoli native and wealthy
candidate for the premiership. Hariri remains a powerful figure, but his
standing has taken a hit because of his lackluster performance and a long
absence from the country. All three are increasingly seen as weak, indecisive
defenders of their sect.
provides an opening for radical Sunni groups. Tripoli already plays host to
several competing Salafi factions. Incredibly, one group -- Harakat al-Tawhid
-- is aligned with Hezbollah. Most, however, are vehemently anti-Shiite and
anti-Alawite. Omar Bakri Muhammad, a Syrian Salafi cleric who was expelled from
Britain for his support for al Qaeda and a darling of the Western media for his
fluency in English, resides in Tripoli. Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, a previously
unknown Salafi cleric from the southern city of Saida, has emerged as a
vociferous champion of Syria's revolutionaries and a challenger of Hariri's
political dominance in the city.
Sunni gangs fighting on the streets of Tripoli are not jihadi outfits -- yet.
Rather, they are a mishmash of armed political activists, religious militants,
and neighborhood strongmen who think they are protecting their communities. But
the growth of Salafi movements would not only adversely affect Lebanon's
fragile equilibrium -- it could well taint the Syrian revolution. It would
provide Assad with timely evidence that his domestic opponents are not
struggling for freedom and democracy, but are allied with violent, foreign
Salafists who object to his government on fundamentalist religious grounds.
the meantime, the Lebanese military has been called in to rescue Tripoli. The
Lebanese Army is generally seen as the country's least politicized and least
sectarian security force, though this image suffered when it stood idle as
Hezbollah and its allies invaded Beirut in May 2008. Its deployment on the
streets of Tripoli may contain the clashes for the moment, but it will merely
serve as a Band-Aid -- the military will neither seize weaponry nor arrest
militiamen involved in the fighting, thus doing nothing to prevent the same
bloody cycle from repeating itself.
sad fact is that there are precious few saviors willing to guide Lebanon
through this crisis. The military on which many Lebanese have pinned their
hopes reflects, rather than transcends, the country's many ills. Nor can the
Lebanese count on their politicians -- the Syrian crisis has crystallized the
existing divides in Lebanon, with each side hoping that its allies next door
will come out on top in the conflict. It looks like all sides will be
disappointed -- with little prospect of a game-changing development, the Syrian
revolution will likely gain in complexity and violence, slowly dragging Lebanon
down with it.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 15/05/2012
-Emile Hokayem is senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute
for Strategic Studies