Syria tensions light fuse in north Lebanon

Reuters News

5/18/2012 2:13:44 PM - Reuters News

By Erika Solomon

TRIPOLI, Lebanon (Reuters) - As armored vehicles rumble past bullet-scarred streets, Lebanese men heckle soldiers they have now added to their list of enemies: "There go the traitors!"

In Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli, the army may have halted three days of bloody clashes kindled by unrest in Syria next door, but anger is still festering. Subdued street fighters hardly disguise their rage towards the state for stopping them.

Fuelled by Syria's 14-month-old revolt and Lebanon's own sectarian struggles, tensions in the impoverished port city boiled over into clashes this week between Sunni Muslims who support the Syrian uprising and Alawites who back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"They're not the Lebanese army anymore, they are the Syrian army. They shouldn't stop us, they should come in here and fight with us!" shouted Walid Bahar, a 45-year-old Sunni man, pointing to a leg covered in wounds. "We are against the army."

The fighting, which killed eight people and wounded dozens - the third round of such clashes this year, serves as a stark reminder how trouble across the border could spill into Lebanon, a tiny country still recovering from its own civil war.

The front line of battle lies between Bahar's district, Bab al-Tabbaneh, and the hilly enclave of Jabal Mohsen above it.

Bab al-Tabbaneh, like most of Tripoli, is Sunni, and residents are fervent supporters of Syria's Sunni-led revolt. Jabal Mohsen is home to the minority Alawite sect, the same offshoot of Shi'ite Islam to which Assad belongs.

With soldiers lining the streets, Bab al-Tabbaneh moves in slow motion: Boys on motorbikes and men hunched in cars roll down streets covered in rubble and scorched palm trees.

A burst of gunfire jolts them into action: they drag out barrels and sandbags hidden in alleyways to make hasty dugouts.

The army vehicles quickly roll out of sight - apparently unwilling to use force. But it is a false alarm, young men say. They go back to their posts, and the soldiers go to theirs.

Tensions in these parts of Tripoli are nothing new. Sunnis and Alawites have fought sporadically since Syria sent troops into Lebanon during its 1975-1990 war.

Just a few kilometers (miles) away in Jabal Mohsen, an elderly man points out a smashed-up street corner.

"Thirty years ago, a man was shot dead there. Yesterday, one of his relatives was killed in the same place. We're always going to live this way. My sons will and so will his sons. This won't end until we've dragged all of Lebanon into another war."

SPREADING VIOLENCE

Local leaders struggling to calm Tripoli speak of trying to solve its problems as if they were severing the heads of a hydra - more conflicts always emerge.

On Tuesday, hours after a truce was agreed between leaders in Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh, violence spread to the vaulted archways of Tripoli's old market.

There, a fistfight ended in a street battle raided by dozens of security forces, their boots crunching over strewn vegetables and bullet casings as they stormed past dazed residents.

"It used to be that two guys could slap each other without it meaning anything. Now it somehow becomes a gunfight between political parties," shouted a man who fled from the rattle of gunfire outside his house in his slippers and undershirt.

"This is all because of Syria."

Locals in Tripoli accuse Syria's allies in Lebanon of trying to relieve pressure on Assad by stirring unrest in Tripoli.

But Sunni groups, they say, use local sympathy for the Syrian revolt to provoke conflict in the hopes of weakening the current government, which is allied to their main rival, the Shi'ite and pro-Syrian guerrilla movement Hezbollah.

"Right now, it is hard to solve. The Syrian issue isn't in our hands and it seems Lebanon's problems aren't either," said Nabil Rahim, a local Sunni cleric who has been meeting with political leaders to solve Tripoli's tensions.

"Other than these political scuffles, you have the issue of living conditions," Rahim said. "The people of Tripoli are really suffering from unemployment and marginalization and that's another reason that the situation here is exploding."

STOKING THE EMBERS

There are other signs of unrest as well.

Tripoli's main square has been taken over by Islamists clamoring for the release of a man they say has been unfairly detained for working for the Syrian opposition.

Shadi al-Moulawi is being charged for working with a "terrorist group" and is facing a military trial.

The square is charred from days of burning tires.

Politicians and religious leaders meeting to solve the tensions are derided by other local officials who say those men are the same players who are stoking unrest.

"They leave them like embers under the ashes. Whenever they want, they can provoke the people," said Saleh Abdullatif, a local official in Jabal Mohsen.

But local leaders may find that some youths are losing interest in what they have to say.

While traffic resumes in other parts of Tripoli and residents try to regain the pace of normal life, in Bab al-Tabbaneh, men gather around to listen to a young man whose words draw shouts and applause.

"No one cares about us. We have no jobs, no health care. There's nothing here ... But these sheikhs try to come and tell us when to start and when to stop," he said.

"No one represents us, we represent ourselves."

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)