News / Middle East

Tripoli's Syria Street Separates Sectarian Clashes

Lebanese army armored vehicles idle on Syria Street between the Jebel Mohsen and Bab Tabbaneh neighborhoods of Tripoli, Lebanon, August 23, 2012. (VOA/Jeff Neumann)
Lebanese army armored vehicles idle on Syria Street between the Jebel Mohsen and Bab Tabbaneh neighborhoods of Tripoli, Lebanon, August 23, 2012. (VOA/Jeff Neumann)
Jeff Neumann
TRIPOLI, Lebanon — A sniper's bullet cracks overhead as Abu Ibrahim crouches into his sandbagged fighting position. Seconds later, two gunmen respond with bursts of automatic rifle fire. Between the sniper and Abu Ibrahim's men two Lebanese army armored personnel carriers idle. Then quiet, as a dozen or so fighters emerge from bunkers and doorways nearby to smoke cigarettes and chat. Young boys scurry to pick up empty shell casings.

This is life on Syria Street, a battle-scarred thoroughfare that separates the rival Bab Tabbaneh and Jebel Mohsen neighborhoods in the coastal city of Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest.

At least 16 people have been killed and over 130 injured in clashes that began last week under murky circumstances. Some here have attributed the latest fighting to post-Ramadan fireworks. But whatever the case, it has underscored just how fragile this sectarian tinderbox is and how intertwined these two communities are with Syria.

  • Fighters from the Bab Tabbaneh neighborhood of Tripoli, Lebanon, gather to clean their weapons, August 25, 2012. (VOA/Jeff Neumann)
  • A canvas sheet protects pedestrians from snipers on Syria Street between the rival Bab Tabbaneh and Jebel Mohson neighborhoods of Tripoli, Lebanon, August 25, 2012. (VOA/Jeff Neumann)
  • Ammunition for Sunni fighters sits on a table in a home in the Bab Tabbaneh neighborhood of Tripoli, Lebanon, August 25, 2012. (VOA/Jeff Neumann)
  • Sheikh Bilal Masri surveys the rival Jebel Mohsen neighborhood across Syria Street from his Bab Tabbaneh home during a brief ceasefire in Tripoli, Lebanon, August 25, 2012. (VOA/Jeff Neumann)
  • A young boy covers his face near a burning dumpster in the Bab Tabbaneh neighborhood of Tripoli, Lebanon, August 25, 2012. (VOA/Jeff Neumann)
  • A fighter from the Bab Tabbaneh neighborhood of Tripoli, Lebanon, cleans his weapon on August 25, 2012. (VOA/Jeff Neumann)
  • Sheikh Bilal Masri rests in his Bab Tabbaneh home during a lull in fighting in Tripoli, Lebanon, August 23, 2012. (VOA/Jeff Neumann)
  • A view of the rival Jebel Mohsen neighborhood from a fighting position in Bab Tabbaneh, Tripoli, Lebanon, August 23, 2012. (VOA/Jeff Neumann)
  • A Sunni fighter from the Bab Tabbaneh neighborhood of Tripoli, Lebanon, cools off during a lull in fighting, August 23, 2012. (VOA/Jeff Neumann)

Even the most innocuous disputes can lead to days of armed clashes, which frequently include small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. It has also laid bare the inability of the Lebanese government and security forces to restore order.

In many ways, the fighting in Tripoli traces back to the days of Lebanon's 15-year civil war, when Alawites from Jebel Mohsen fought alongside the Syrian army against Sunni fighters of Bab Tabbaneh. The civil war in neighboring Syria has only exacerbated long-running sectarian tensions here, while Bab Tabbaneh has served as a pipeline for weapons flowing to anti-government rebels inside Syria.

On the Jebel Mohsen side, the Alawite chief Rifaat Eid controls a cadre of men loyal to his Arab Democratic Party and, by extension, the Assad regime from which it draws support. In May, Eid called for the Syrian army to return to Tripoli to protect his minority sect, which is estimated to account for roughly 40,000 of the city's 200,000 primarily Sunni residents. Fighters in Bab Tabbaneh answer to a number of local commanders and political parties.

During a lull in the fighting Abu Ibrahim shows off scars on his arms and abdomen that he says are from fighting Syrian soldiers when they occupied Tripoli in 1983. On his forearm is a large, faded tattoo of a sword.

"This has been going on my whole adult life," he says, while blaming Assad for the latest bout of fighting here. "I have nine sons and I won't let any of them fight, but this could change if the situation gets worse. I think it will."

One of Abu Ibrahim's men proudly cradles a new, American-made M4 assault rifle. When asked if the weapon was purchased with money from Saudi Arabia, he nods without expression. There seems to be no shortage of firepower in Bab Tabbaneh, though it is impossible to verify where it all comes from.

Intersections along Syria Street are draped with large canvas and plastic tarps to obstruct the view of snipers from Jebel Mohsen. A vast network of passages – gaping holes blasted through apartment and shop walls – help civilians and fighters circumvent the most dangerous areas.

In Bab Tabbaneh Sheikh Bilal's sitting room is decorated with ornate furniture, bowls of candy and plastic flowers. Stashed around the room in several bags are hundreds of bullets for various handguns and rifles, as well as a new night-vision scope. A small, framed picture of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri sits on a corner table next to walkie-talkies which buzz steadily with voices and static.

"The dogs from Jebel Mohsen have terrorized us all week," Bilal says. "We will fight them for as long as it takes. Anytime Bashar wants to set Lebanon on fire he can. And this is what he is doing right now."

Sporadic gunfire echoes in the alleyways outside the sheikh's home, which is guarded by his small group of young fighters. There are several escape routes he can use if the incoming fire gets too close.

"Where is all of this money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar that people talk about?" Bilal asks, referring to reports of money being funneled to support Syrian rebels. "We want some of it too, because we need more guns and ammunition to protect ourselves."

Nearby to the sheikh's house a young man named Samir complains, "We have no electricity here. We can't sleep at night because it is so hot and we can't even run fans. And we rarely have running water. This is how the Lebanese government treats its people? They do nothing for us."

Samir is sitting beneath large portraits of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and former PM Saad Hariri, two stalwarts of the Sunni community here. The pre-Assad flag of Syria, now the adopted symbol of the revolution next door, flies on almost every block next to portraits of martyrs from the neighborhood.

Through all of the tit-for-tat fighting the men of Bab Tabbaneh seem certain of one thing – that the regime of Bashar al-Assad will fall soon.

"Bashar is finished and Jebel Mohsen knows this," Bilal says. "They are acting out because his time is up."

Several attempts at a ceasefire have ultimately failed and on Sunday, an Alawite official was killed by sniper fire.

In remarks made to a local television station on Sunday, the head of the Tripoli municipality, Nader Ghazal, said, "We have reached the point of no return over the situation in the city."

The Lebanese army has reportedly arrested several gunmen, but the streets remain full of young men brandishing firearms. The sidewalk in front of a food stall now serves as a weapons-cleaning station for the surrounding blocks. The mood is light as men and boys crack jokes about the decrepit state of their Kalashnikovs.

"We are always prepared," one of them says.

Ceasefires come and go almost daily, while the fighters of Bab Tabbaneh brace for the next fight that they are sure is coming.

You May Like

Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

Dynamic and debonair opposition leader had supported liberal economic reforms, criticized Russian president's aggression in Ukraine More

Oil Smuggling Highlights Challenges in Shutting Down IS Finances

Pentagon spokesman says Islamic State 'certainly continues to get revenue from the oil industry black market' but that airstrikes have made a dent More

India Focuses on Infrastructure, Investment to Propel Economy

Government expects economy to grow at 8 to 8.5 percent in next fiscal year More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More