A Syrian Proxy War Is Being Fought in Tripoli

By Stefan Simanowitz



“If we all piss on them at the same time, they will drown.” The Sunni fighter in Bab al-Tabbaneh tells me this while gesturing up the hill towards the neighboring Alawite district of Jabal Mohsen. Over the past eight days, fighting between these two neighborhoods in Lebanon’s second city of Tripoli has claimed nearly 30 lives and resulted in over 200 injuries. But while Tripoli’s Sunnis may outnumber Alawites to a ratio of four to one, there is little chance of either side gaining an advantage any time soon. Instead, an ongoing battle of attrition is being played out, in the middle of which the Lebanese army regularly finds itself caught.

Clashes between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen are nothing new. The two have been going at it for decades, yet they have started clashing far more regularly since the beginning of the uprising in neighboring Syria two years ago. This latest outbreak of violence began at the same time as an Hezbollah supported assault just over the Syrian border in the strategic town of Qusair. This has only served to fuel speculation that what's going on in Tripoli is not just linked to the Syrian civil war, but is actually a proxy of it—with the Alawites of Jabal Mohsen supporting embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the Sunnis of Bab al-Tabbaneh on the side of the rebels who are trying to topple him.

Bab al-Tabbaneh is a place of grinding poverty and a stronghold of Lebanon’s Salafi movement, one of Sunni Islam's more conservative offshoots. Here, parallel streets are interconnected with a well-established lattice of makeshift passages that have been knocked through walls in houses or shops. These enable people to move without exposing themselves to gun fire on the horizontal streets overlooked by the enemy Alawite soldiers up the hill in Jabal Mohsen. Large plastic tarpaulins have even been strung across certain street junctions to shield people from telescopic sniper sights. While most cross behind these bullet-hole-pocked tarps as fast as they can, one old woman ambles across, pausing to suck her teeth in the direction of the snipers.

The normalcy of violent clashes in Bab al-Tabbaneh is apparent. Although schools, banks, and other institutions remain closed, people carry on with their daily lives as best they can. With the streets reverberating to the sound of heavy machine-gun fire and occasional RPGs, old men sit in the shielded market street, drinking coffee and playing backgammon. On balconies, women and children peer down at the street below, where a gang of heavily armed militiamen have gathered. In an internet café a young boy plays shoot 'em-up—the words "Terrorists Win" flashing on the screen when his game is over.

Despite the poverty of their surroundings, the fighters are armed with an impressive array of weapons. “This gun cost me $2,000,” one thick-bearded fighter tells me. “I paid for it from my own pocket.” In northern Lebanon, Sunnis are thought to have been giving logistical support to Syrian rebel forces for some time, as well as aiding in their recruitment drive. In Bab al-Tabbaneh, it isn't hard to find men who claim to have fought in Syria. Others, like 40-year-old Abu Hamza, a driver in designer glasses, bemoan the fact they aren't able to. “I would like to have that honor,” he says, “but I need to stay in Tripoli to defend my family and my neighborhood.”

There's an increasing belief that Hezbollah and Assad are directing their supporters in Lebanon to engage local Sunnis in combat. That way, the reasoning goes, men like Abu Hamza are persuaded to stay home and defend their loved ones rather than join the rebels attempting to overthrow Assad's regime. Those already fighting in Syria may also feel compelled to return from their foreign war, to face battles much closer to home.

Since Monday morning there has been a lull in the heavy fighting, albeit a lull punctuated by occasional sniper fire. Human Rights Watch yesterday called on the Lebanese government to enforce this fragile ceasefire by deploying more security forces to the area, seizing weapons from the gunmen and arresting and prosecuting those responsible for shooting at and shelling residents. However, this is unlikely to happen. In Abu Hamza’s opinion, “The fighting here will only finish when Assad is finished—and not before.”

With European powers preparing to arm both sides in the Syrian conflict, the outlook for Tripoli remains bleak.

All photos by Stefan Simanowitz.

Follow Stefan on Twitter: @StefSimanowitz

More from Lebanon:

People in Lebanon Are Killing Each Other over Syria

No Smoking in Lebanon 

Lebanon's Sunni Child Soldiers  

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