© Hugh Macleod

A view from the Allawi neighbourhood of Jebel Mohsen down to the Sunni area of Bab al-Tabbaneh. The perfect storm of politics, poverty and religion that drive the Middle East’s instability have combined in this forgotten corner of northern Lebanon to turn historical grievances between Tripoli’s 500,000 Sunnis and its 50,000 Allawis into an intractable armed conflict.

A perfect storm in Tripoli

The Sunday Herald
August 17, 2008
www.sundayherald.com/international/shinternational/display.var.2427200.0.0.php

By Hugh Macleod
Tripoli, north Lebanon
Additional reporting by Rami Aysha.

Friday in Tripoli, the holiest day of the week in Lebanon’s most conservative city.

The fighters have knocked holes in the breeze block walls of the buildings so they can move along the frontline without being shot by snipers from the hill above.

It’s the same tactic from the 1980s, when they fought the Syrian army then controlling this northern port city.

Then, as now, loathing of the secular military regime in Damascus, dominated by members of the Allawi sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, ran deep among factions of hard-line Sunnis Muslims, who are quick to brand as kafr, or unbeliever, anyone not following their absolutist and austere version of Islam.


© Hugh Macleod

With Lebanon reeling from three years of wars and political turmoil, Tripoli has become a focal point for rising Sunni radicalism in the region’s most fragile and unique multi-sectarian democracy. Since May, at least 23 people have been killed in clashes between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jebel Mohsen, hundreds injured and thousands of families on both sides of the sectarian divide have been driven from their homes.

Twenty years ago, though, Syria dominated north Lebanon, militarily and politically, and Damascus ensured Tripoli’s Sunni radicals paid a high price for their insurrection.

Under Syrian tutelage, much of this once thriving ancient Phoenician port city was reduced to a struggling slum, where families of ten or more children are common, school drop-out rates are at 80 percent and where most young men are unemployed.

Today, with the Syrian army gone from Lebanon and the country still reeling from three years of wars and political turmoil, Tripoli has become a focal point for rising Sunni radicalism in the region’s most fragile and unique multi-sectarian democracy.

The perfect storm of politics, poverty and religion that drive the Middle East’s instability have combined in this forgotten corner of northern Lebanon to turn historical grievances between Tripoli’s 500,000 Sunnis and its 50,000 Allawis into an intractable armed conflict.

Since May, at least 23 people have been killed, hundreds injured and thousands of families on both sides of the sectarian divide have been driven from their homes.

Dozens of ceasefire agreements have been broken, the army has so far been unable to impose order and all mediation between the sides has failed.

“Spread the word of God among the unbelievers. Go to jihad,” cries out the preacher at a Friday sermon blared over loud speakers from the mosque in Tripoli’s Sunni neighbourhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh.

For the fighters of Bab al-Tabbaneh, the jihad is clear cut: firing rocket propelled grenades at the Allawi community living on the adjacent hill, known as Jebel Mohsen.


© Hugh Macleod

Bab al-Tabbaneh is Tripoli’s most densely populated area and one of Lebanon’s poorest. At one of the neighbourhoods’ two schools, drop-out rates rise to 80 percent, according to figures from UNICEF.

“We are raising the word of God very high,” said one of the fighters, tracksuit and trainers for agility, beard for religious piety and shoulder launched rockets for the day’s work.

Fanned by the ongoing political cleavage in Beirut, that sets a Sunni dominated government majority, backed by Saudi Arabia and the West, against a resurgent opposition led by the Iranian and Syrian backed Shia militant group Hezbollah, the turf war of Tripoli exemplifies Lebanon’s tragic susceptibility to regional dynamics.

“As long as there is a political problem in Lebanon, the weakest link will be Tripoli,” said Sheikh Bilal Mattar, a former member of Islamist Tawheed movement, which once fought the Syrian army in late 1980s, now a leader in Bab al-Tabbaneh.

“The sectarian split exists but it is affected by the political split. When the Syrians withdrew, Jebel Mohsen became their new frontline in Tripoli. We will never accept them to return back.”

Money from Saudi Arabia has been used to build mosques and schools in Bab al-Tabbaneh and the several hundred fighters leading the battle follow salafism, an extremist Sunni Islamic doctrine arises predominantly from the religious schools of Riyadh and Jeddah.

On Jebel Mohsen, meanwhile, residents proudly show off their tattoos of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, or Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Pictures of Assad’s son Bashar, who in 2000 inherited his father’s oppressive military rule over Syria, hang everywhere.


© Hugh Macleod

“I wasn’t smart so my parents said I should work, rather than stay in school,” says Hussein Dayekh, a 13-year-old who has worked in his local chicken shop in Bab al-Tabbaneh since he was seven. After a day’s work, some of his friends pop ecstasy pills, says Hussein, but he’d rather just sleep. But with his house burned and looted and the chicken shop closed, Hussein is no longer able to earn the £15 a week he used to give his mother.

Hezbollah’s armed take-over in May of Sunni strongholds in West Beirut further spiked latent sectarian tensions and pitched Lebanon’s political stand-off deeper into the broiling power struggle between Iran, Hezbollah’s ideological and financial backer, and Sunni power house Saudi Arabia.

“The crises of Lebanon began when [Ayatollah] Khomeini came to power in Iran in 1979, because he dreamed to dominate the region,” said Daee al-Islam al-Shahal, whose long white hair and head scarf give him an almost other-worldly appearance, and whose father was the spiritual founder of the salafi movement in north Lebanon.

In the wake of Hezbollah’s May attacks, Daee al-Islam issued instructions to his followers, which include a well organised military wing, to stand against the Shia group and its allies.

“Hezbollah invaded Beirut and we saw this as a threat to the Sunni presence in Tripoli, because we believe their goal was to occupy Tripoli. I issued a fatwa to defend the city.”

Among the fighters scrambling through the passage ways that lead onto Syria Street, the frontline that divides Bab al-Tabbaneh from Jebel Mohsen, that fatwa has been interpreted and taken up with a vengeance.

“There’s so many of us and we all want the pride of fighting the infidels,” says a salafi gunman, explaining tactics.

“So we have organised into groups of eight, fighting for one hour and resting for two. That way all the mujahedeen get the chance to fight.”

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© Hugh Macleod

The army deployed in both neighborhoods but was unable to force either side to maintain a cease-fire through July and August, while all mediation between the sides failed.

A few hours after evacuating their bullet riddled apartment on Syria Street, Khaled Mansour and his new wife were woken by the sound of their front room exploding.

“The rocket came through the window at dawn,” says the 23-year-old accountant with scraggly black beard and traditional white tunic, who had moved his veiled wife and mother into his uncle’s flat next door, just past the passageway graffiti praising former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, revered by some Sunnis for fighting a war against Iran.

“I am trying not to carry a gun and go to the front line but we are being dragged into the fight,” says Mansour, looking through broken glass at the hillside of Jebel Mohsen, or as he has now calls it, Jebel Sourie.

“It’s as if someone is saying ‘If you do not join the battle we will destroy your house.’ But I will not fight, but ask God to take his revenge.”

Like many of his neighbours, Mansour is now without a job, his office having been burned out.

He is still one of the lucky ones. Tripoli may be Lebanon’s second city, but it and its neighbouring municipality of Akkar have long come bottom on the list of Lebanon’s development priorities.


© Hugh Macleod

On Jebel Mohsen residents proudly show off their tattoos of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, or Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, underlining the support many Allawis show for the opposition. Pictures of Assad’s son Bashar, who in 2000 inherited his father’s oppressive military rule over Syria, hang everywhere.

Both Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jebel Mohsen are among the country’s poorest areas, with adult unemployment around 60 percent, according to locals. Out of eight men interviewed on the street, four were unemployed, one owned a café and the rest worked as litter pickers, earning around £4 a day.

School drop-out rates hit 80 percent in some areas, according to the UN children’s fund, UNICEF.

“I wasn’t smart so my parents said I should work, rather than stay in school,” says Hussein Dayekh, a 13-year-old who has worked in his local chicken shop in Bab al-Tabbaneh since he was seven.

After a day’s work, some of his friends pop ecstasy pills, says Hussein, but he’d rather just sleep. But with his house burned and looted and the chicken shop closed, Hussein is no longer able to earn the £15 a week he used to give his mother.

“She wants me to find another job. But where should I work?” he asks looking down Syria street, from where giant black flags hang between charred buildings and broken electricity cables.

On the black flags, a symbol of Islam at war, huge white letters in flowing Quranic script proclaim the holy call to prayer: “There is no God but God and Mohammed is his Prophet.”

As we look down the street, the wind picks up, catching the flags and billowing them out, like proud chests, towards the Allawis on the hill.

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Sitting below a portrait of Syria’s former president, Rifaat Eid, leader of Jebel Mohsen, dismisses the burly fighters crammed into his office with their tatty green ammo jackets, blood-shot eyes and walkie-talkies.

It’s been a long night; we learn later that Allawi gunmen had just launched an offensive from their hill-top stronghold into a neighbouring Sunni area, a major escalation of the battle, driving most of its terrified residents from their homes.


© Hugh Macleod

Rifat Eid, the leader of the Allawite community in Jebel Mohsen, sits under a picture of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. “In Tripoli most people are with Hariri but they never gave us rights as Allawis,” said Eid.

“They never gave us rights as Allawis. It was the Sunnis who appointed Allawi MPs,” says the young man, who blusters when asked why he does not hang a portrait of Lebanon’s recently elected president above him, rather than Syria’s long-dead one.

“We want good relations with the Sunnis, but they have recruited 3,500 Islamist fighters who have no mercy.”

Eid shows us a grainy video, captured on a mobile phone by one of the Sunni fighters and passed to him through a mutual contact. It shows young men, similar, to those we found crawling through the walls of Bab al-Tabbaneh, gathered on the litter filled streets, smoking, chatting, brandishing their weapons. The scene could be Baghdad.

“Where there is poverty these salafis thrive,” says Eid. “They have many projects against the state. The Saudis send money to them. But we have made our choice: we will never leave this mountain, except in coffins.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by all the Allawis we meet. Far up in the north of Akkar, in the Allawi village of Hisa just a few miles from the Syrian border, we find Hussein Mohammed and his family, who fled Jebel Mohsen after the latest ceasefire broke down.

The family has been uprooted “more than forty times” over the years since Lebanon’s Civil War began in 1975, but they have rarely felt as threatened as they do today.


© Hugh Macleod

Far up in the north of Akkar, in the Allawi village of Hisa just a few miles from the Syrian border, we find Hussein Mohammed and his family, who fled Jebel Mohsen after the latest ceasefire broke down. The family has been uprooted “more than forty times” over the years since Lebanon’s Civil War began in 1975, but they have rarely felt as threatened as they do today.

“When Israel did airstrikes [during the July War of 2006] they dropped leaflets warning us to leave the village,” says Mohammed, staying at his brother’s home in Hisa. “These salafis are trying to drive us out of the country.”

Mohammed Ali Hussein, mayor of Hisa, estimates around 500 Allawi families have had their homes damaged and perhaps half of all Jebel Mohsen’s 50,000 residents have been displaced.

While Tripoli’s municipality has been busy supporting its Sunni constituents – some 700 or so Sunni families have found shelter in state schools and are receiving food and medical support from the Sunni Future Movement of parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri – uprooted Allawis have largely been left to fend for themselves.

“There are no Allawi families here as they would feel threatened,” Saleem Nashabi, a Future official coordinating relief efforts at one school admitted. Instead, Allawis from Jebel Mohsen have all fled north, many to the country where their brethren hold so much of the power.

“A huge number of families left for Syria because we have no capacity to help them,” said Hussein. And if the soldiers of God don’t drive the Allawis out, economic ruin might.

Mohammed Mahmoud, a rugged Allawi with the distinctive blue eyes of his community, used to work the fertile soils of Akkar, growing potatoes.


© Hugh Macleod

Yael Mohammed, 12-years-old, excels at schools but has missed the end of year exams due to the conflict. “It’s too easy to be a militant. I want to join the army and kill those cowards creating chaos,” he says.

But where once a kilogramme would fetch £0.15 or over, today, farmers in Hisa say, they go for just £0.03, or as livestock feed.

Mahmoud gave up farming with debts hanging over him of nearly £8,000. His answer? Smuggling diesel fuel from Syria, where it is heavily subsidised, into Lebanon, where it can be sold for nearly triple the price.

“I’ve now paid off most of my debts and have decided to move my family to Syria,” said Mahmoud. “I want to enroll the children in Syrian schools. It’s much cheaper to live there and we can be treated just the same as everybody else.”

He’s not the only one upping sticks for good.

“It’s over. I don’t want to live up there anymore,” says Roum Falfoul, a 27-year-old Sunni mechanic from Syria Street whose family lived among the Allawis of Jebel Mohsen for forty years, but who are now moving down the hill into Sunni Tripoli.

“It’s not because I’m scared or threatened, I just don’t feel comfortable,” he says. “I can’t explain exactly why, it’s just a feeling, deep inside.”