The Syrian Crisis in the city of Tripoli, second-largest city in Lebanon, had repercussions on the escalation of violence between the Muslim neighborhoods of Bab-al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen. This conflict is the archetype of poorly run, politically divided, militarized and sectarian Lebanon. During the last year, the Lebanese Army was in charge of the security situation. Currently the city, as well as the rest of the country, is preparing itself for municipal elections.
Since 2011, tensions in Syria spilled over to neighboring Lebanon, exacerbating the already existing sectarian division deriving from the civil war (1975-1990). As known, Syria and Lebanon not only share geographical borders, but also have political ties. For this reason, the current Syrian crisis had severe repercussions in Lebanon, which turned into a strategic arena at the mercy of external powers, influencing both internal dynamics and politics. Nowadays, Lebanon is politically divided between the March 14 Alliance and the March 8 Alliance. The former is constituted by the Sunnite of the Future Movement (Hariri), the Christians of the Lebanese forces (Geagea) and the Kataeb Party – supported internationally by the United States and Saudi Arabia and hostile to the Syrian regime. On the other hand, the March 8 Alliance, which prevails in the government, is ruled by Hizbullah and the Amal Movement – supported by Syria and Iran.
With the deterioration of Syria’s security conditions, people began to flee into Lebanon. As of March 2016, UNHCR has recorded across Lebanon more than one million refugees, of which 256,126 are concentrated in the North-western region, the so-called T5 zone (including Tripoli district plus the districts of El Koura, El Batroun, Bcharre, Zgharta and El Minnie-Dennie). The north-western border between the two countries used to be extremely fleeting, also considering the connections between the Alawi minority residing in North Lebanon and the one settled in Syria. In addition to the refugee crisis, the spillover from the Syrian conflict has plunged it into regular outbreaks of violence in the city of Tripoli. Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-most populous city with half a million inhabitants, 88 km far from Beirut, is now suffering from decades of economic collapse. The city has been a hot spot for security instability over the past few years, which adversely affected its economy and development. The main entrance to Tripoli from the South is the crowded and chaotic Noor Square, a rallying meeting point for demonstrations during the last years. As a consequence, the Lebanese Army is permanently surrounding it. Tanks are placed at every corner. One of the main consequences of the Syrian Crisis influx in the city of Tripoli was the exacerbation of the already existing and recurring conflict between the Sunni Muslims residing in Bab-al-Tabbaneh neighborhood and the Alawite Muslims living in the area of Jabal Mohsen. This conflict is the archetype of poorly run, politically divided, militarized and sectarian Lebanon. In many regards, the fighting traces back to Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, when Alawites from Jabal Mohsen fought alongside the Syrian Army against Sunni fighters from Bab-al-Tabbaneh. Syria’s civil war has only highlighted long-running sectarian tensions. Simultaneously, Bab-al-Tabbaneh has served as a pipeline for weapon smuggling to anti-government rebels in Syria. The roots of Tripoli’s conflict run deep and have found fertile ground in poverty, rather than in religious controversies.
In 2011, the first episode of violence in Tripoli occurred in June, when armed clashes erupted to counter a rally in support of Syrian protesters in Bab-al-Tabbaneh, leaving 7 people killed and 59 wounded. The following armed contrasts that took place throughout 2012 and 2013 indicated a mounting mobilization in support of the Syrian “revolution.” The Syrian government was indeed exerting pressure on Prime Minister Mikati to support the Assad regime. Notwithstanding the fact that the middle ground was collapsing, Mikati continued to adopt a so-called policy of “self-disassociation.” Consequently, different Lebanese sects began to align with or against the Syrian uprising, generating further violent clashes. During May and June 2013, the conflict between the two above-mentioned communities in Tripoli rose in intensity following the occupation of the Syrian town of Qusayr by Syrian Government forces. Violence in Tripoli erupted within hours following the news release about the Syrian Army (supported by Hezbollah) striking an offensive in Qusayr. The continuation of violence between the two Tripoli neighborhoods, employing mortars and heavy weaponry for the first time, raised concerns about its escalate into a new civil war as a spillover of the Syrian one. The Lebanese Army Forces was then deployed to contain the conflict. However, intermittent clashes have continued; resulting in the death of some 115 people, with 827 people injured. In August 2013, two attacks in two mosques resulted in extensive damage, leaving 47 killed and 5 injured. The first explosion hit outside the Al-Taqwa Mosque, residence of the Sunni preacher Sheikh Salem al-Rafei. A few minutes later, a second blast rocked the Al-Salam Mosque in the streets of al-Mina, predominantly populated by Greek Orthodox Christians and by Sunni Muslims; regular destination for foreigners and home to moderates, entrepreneurs and politicians. If until that moment the Christian areas were acting as a buffer zone, far from the conflict between the two Muslim neighborhoods, for the first time they were under attack. Over 2014, despite the increased presence of the army and the constant raids, Bab al-Tabbaneh was kept on edge. Intense clashes between the military and the Islamist armed militia inspired by Islamic radical movements, left marks visible through the bullet-ridden building exteriors. Even though a security plan to de-escalate the situation was implemented in April 2014, Tripoli was still in dire straits. On August 6, 2014, a homemade bomb killed 1 civilian and wounded 10 others near an army checkpoint in Tripoli. In October 2014, fights in the old suq caused three days of fierce fighting that killed at least 11 soldiers, 5 civilians and about two dozen militants. As in 2014, at least 141 people have been killed, most of them by snipers. In January 2015, a suicide-bomb attack in Jabal Mohsen killed at least 7 people and left several others wounded. Since the last attack in 2015, the security situation in Tripoli has become stable, despite some sporadic and personal disputes. However, during the last year, the city has been put in the midst of a tense calm since rounds of violence have transformed it from a bustling centre of trade and commerce into an economically depressed city, constantly on the brink of war. Tripoli, whose residents have repeatedly protested against such violence, still suffers from poverty, lack of investment and high rates of unemployment. However, it could be one of the backbones of Lebanon’s economy. Competition and rivalry among its members have prevented the municipality from implementing any significant projects.
Municipal elections took place every Sunday since 8 May, and last round was in Northern governorate. The feeling across the country is that they are restoring “democratic life,” and no particular threat to the security situation arose. Tripoli’s municipal elections’ tradition is enabling a “compromise ticket” to govern the city. This time, the electoral scenario appears slightly different. Four lists ran for the elections. The first list, “Tripoli’s Decision,” is headed by Ahmad Qamareddine and supported by the Ministry of Justice Ashraf Rifi. They self-labelled themselves as a “homogeneous team which believes in a partnership between civil society and the representatives of poor areas, that have the priority for receiving development.” It ran against the “For Tripoli” slate, a partnership among the Future Movement, the former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, the former MP Faisal Karami, local families and religious groups. A third list spearheaded by the former MP Misbah Ahdab and called “Tripoli Capital” ticket has also joined the electoral race. The fourth list was composed by a civil society group. This time civil society factions tried to reject the tradition and engaged in a democratic opposition against any list put forward by the traditional political powers. The results of the elections in Tripoli was unpredictable: they ended with the unexpected victory of the Tripoli’s Decision list, without escalating in episodes of violence. Tripoli seemed somehow to follow the capital city’s path. In Beirut, the new political movement Beirut Madinati, opposing the traditional political parties’ power, gained 40% of the votes. This percentage is quite significant considering that only 20% of the electorate voted. In light of the past experience with one list only and single candidates running by themselves, the possibility of choosing different lists and the efforts of the civil society shows that small steps forward are slowly undergoing through change, even in the centre of sectarian tensions and armed conflict during the past years.
However, it still seems that the country is torn apart by political unrest exacerbated by the 2014 vacuum at the presidential palace, without enabling durable solutions for political, economic and social problems that affect Lebanon, such as high rate of unemployment, refugees, low wages, and corruption of political parties. Once again, the case of Tripoli’s conflict between Bab-al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen shows that no real and enduring solutions were adopted. On the contrary, the government chose to implement a fictitious stability that can easily vanish. Here is a high risk that, without addressing rooted problems by employing long-term strategies, external influences and internal factors can again lead the political and security situation into a break down.
Intern at the UNHCR Representative in Lebanon
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