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Syrian Crisis Spills Over Into Lebanon

TRIPOLI, Lebanon, Feb 15 2012 (IPS) - Chants erupt from the second floor of a decrepit building in Tripoli in the Sunni stronghold of Bab el-Tebbaneh. Young voices loudly sing “Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar,” or “Come on, leave, Bashar,” directed at the Syrian president, Bashar al- Assad. It has become the anthem of the Syrian revolution.

Behind a broken door, women and children gather around a hot pot of coffee. Souhaib Aal, one of the teenagers sitting in the small, run-down room, proudly shows a makeshift copy of a Free Syrian Army (FSA) ID card. “I want to be like the FSA soldiers when I grow up. They have shown strength and courage in battling Assad’s dictatorship!” he says with a proud smile.

The building bears the scars of the violent battle that raged last weekend between Sunni residents from Bab el-Tebbaneh and their Alawite neighbors in Jabal Mohsen. The Syrian regime is made up of Alawites who rule a Sunni-majority country. The fighting, which left three people dead, ended last Saturday after Tripoli lawmakers hammered out a ceasefire.

The onslaught on Homs has enflamed emotions in nearby Lebanon, reviving tensions between Lebanese Sunnis, who largely support the Syrian rebellion, and Alawites, who support the regime in Damascus. The conflict between the groups has been ongoing for generations and seems set to continue for long.

“We feel with the people in Homs,” says Amina Hamoud, a young Sunni mother interviewed by IPS. Homs, a flashpoint city in the Syrian uprising, has been under siege by regime forces for months but has experienced intense shelling over the last ten days, leaving over 300 people dead.

“We experienced before them the repression of the Assad regime,” Hamoud says in reference to a 1986 massacre in Tripoli by the occupying Syrian army, which left more than 320 people dead. Hamoud lost seven of her relatives. “My cousin of 17 was killed by Syrian soldiers in front of his mother.”


The people of Bab el-Tebbaneh watch with horror television images of a battered Homs, less than 200 kilometres away. The Syrian regime has blamed the violence on armed terrorist gangs.

While rivalries between the two communities have been on the rise since the 2005 assassination of Sunni Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri – a killing blamed on Syria and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah – the Homs onslaught has aggravated sectarian sentiment in Tripoli. Another factor, according to Mohammad Kabbara, MP from the Lebanese parliamentary bloc Future, which supports the uprising, is the Tripoli- based Alawite Arab Democratic Party’s “unrelenting support of the Syrian regime.”

A few hundred metres from Bab el-Tabbaneh, across Syria Street, the demarcation line separating the two areas, brand new posters of Bashar al-Assad hang on the dilapidated walls. Cars drive through the winding streets with songs dedicated to the glory of Assad turned on full blast. Men dressed in military attire sit in compact groups in coffee shops.

“The Syrian Alawites are victims of persecution and of a plot fomented by Arab countries,” says Ali Boubo, a mechanic from Jabal Mohsen. “Similarly, Salafists from Bab el-Tebbaneh want to draw us into conflict in Lebanon.” Boubo attributes “the conspiracy” to the Alawites’ staunch opposition to Israel. For the past several years, Syria has been part of the ‘defense axis’ against Israel, along with Iran and Hezbollah.

Around Jabal Mohsen, residents perceive the feud with Bab el-Tebbaneh as regional and not local. “(Saad) Hariri, (son of slain PM Rafic Hariri) has publicly called for Syria’s downfall. He should be ashamed of himself and focus on fighting our enemy Israel, instead of Syria,” says Abu Ahmad, the owner of a grocery store in Jabal Mohsen.

Similar to their Syrian counterparts, Jabal Mohsen residents blame Salafists and the Sunni Future Movement for the wave of violence. Tripoli is home to the largest Salafist community in Lebanon.

However, according to Salafist Sheikh Nabil Rahim, “the Salafists are aware of the sectarian dimension of the conflict and want to avoid being drawn into it at all costs.” But sources within the community told IPS that if civil strife in the city continues, they might join the battle.

Meanwhile, local politicians have renewed calls for the demilitarisation of Tripoli. MP Kabbara told IPS that Prime Minister Najib Mikati should clamp down on the spread of weapons in the city and work on disarming the involved parties. “The army should reinstate its sovereignty over all areas and protect the citizens from aggression.”

But many in Bab el-Tebbaneh don’t believe there will be an end to the strife soon. Jihad el-Rahi, a mother of three whose house was shelled on Saturday, says that she has avoided sending her daughter to school in Jabal Mohsen due to renewed sectarian sentiment.

“Strife profits thugs and politicians. They say the situation in Tripoli will improve when Syria falls. But who knows when? Do we have to slaughter each other until then?”

 
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