People in Lebanon Are Killing Each Other Over Syria
Above: Fighters in the Firuq Brigade of Souq al-Qamar, who said the war was never going to end and they were proud to fight for Tabbaneh.
Lebanon’s second largest city of Tripoli is mainly known for its rich history and architecture, sweet food, the fact that it’s not the Tripoli in Libya and—in more recent times—flare-ups in sectarian fighting. The ideal holiday destination for anyone who wants to escape their desk job for a week of routine violence and baklava. Since the start of the Syrian revolution, violent battles have taken place in various parts of the city. Most of the fighting has been done between the city’s bands of pro-revolution Sunni militias and forces in the pro-Assad district of Jabal Mohsen.
Since Syria lies only a few miles north of Tripoli, thousands of Syrian refugees belonging to various ethno-religious groups have streamed across the border into Lebanon looking for refuge, which has begun to destabilise the situation there even more. It’s a country already constantly teetering on the knife-edge of sectarian conflict, and after 15 years of civil war that left hundreds of thousands of people dead, Lebanon knows Syria’s problems far too well.
On the outside, Lebanon may appear to be a functioning and stable country. But in reality, the confessionalist state is deeply divided and the hastily bandaged scars following the chaos of civil war have again become open wounds in the Lebanese psyche. Former warlords—many of whom still harbor racist and inflammatory views—are now politicians and religious leaders, and there’s still a deep distrust between many of the country’s 18 recognised religious sects. Gun battles breaking out between different communities have been commonplace over the last decade, and the brutal assassinations of public figures have incinerated any notion that Lebanon adheres to the principles of a functioning democracy.
A Sunni funeral for one of the fighters killed in Syria takes place in Tripoli.
The neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen lie side by side. Their communities have been fighting for generations, stretching as far back as the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. The Alawites of Jabal Mohsen are staunch supporters of Bashar al-Assad, the man they see as the leader of their community. Their mainly Sunni neighbours in Bab al-Tabbaneh and most of Tripoli don’t share the same enthusiasm.
In the most recent round of clashes, 17 people were killed, including women, children and the elderly. The violence erupted after news came through that 20 Sunni fighters from northern Lebanon had crossed the border to fight Assad’s forces only to be killed by them in an ambush.
Videos were also released that purportedly showed the bodies of those men being stabbed by regime forces, triggering a violent reaction from Tripoli’s Sunni community. Clashes broke out between the Alawites in Jabal Mohsen and the Sunnis in Bab al-Tabbaneh, leading to barrages of rocket propelled grenades and machine gun fire across the region as militiamen from both sides squared off.
Members of the Free Syrian Army’s mughaweer (commandos) and Ah al-Rassi (Freedom for the Assi River) brigades return to al-Qusayr after a battle near the Lebanese border in Homs. (The photos contained within this piece were taken by an independent photographer before the author visited the region. The Lebanese rebel-supporters and Hezbollah members interviewed throughout the piece refused to be photographed for obvious reasons.)
ON THE LAM IN LEBANON -
SYRIA’S VIOLENCE BLEEDS OVER THE BORDER
It’s dusk when the rebels move into position within a cluster of lemon and olive groves about 300 feet from the Syrian border post north of the bleak and dusty Lebanese farming village of al-Qaa. I’m watching the operation from behind the troops with their commander, a Lebanese man I’ll call “Hussein” who oversees 200 rebel fighters in the area.
“We’re moving some guys into [the nearby Syrian town of] al-Qusayr and need to distract Assad’s troops,” Hussein tells me. His brigade is tasked with keeping the guns, money, and fighters flowing between Lebanon and Syria. He interrupts our conversation to bark out an order on his walkie-talkie, keeping it short and sweet so his signal has less of a chance of being intercepted.
“OK,” Hussein orders. “Move in.”
His soldiers fan out across the olive orchard, preparing to attack the concrete buildings, ringed by sandbags, distracting the border guards while another unit of fighters seven miles away slips across the border undetected. A classic diversion.
The idyllic orchard explodes into war. Three rocket-propelled grenades fly toward the border post. A dozen automatic rifles and machine guns release a rain of ammunition; muzzle flashes light up the darkening sky.
“We do this every few days,” Hussein laughs. “But so do they,” he adds while pointing toward Assad’s troops.
The Syrian Army returns fire with machine guns and AK-47s of their own, sending bullets whipping through the grove at the rebels in front of us. Hussein and I are standing a few rows back, but we are still somewhat in the line of fire. I realize I’m uncomfortably close to the front line, even if I’m not right up on it. The bullets that hit the nearby trees aren’t aimed at us, but marksmanship is a moot point after you’re dead.
A moment later, Hussein’s troops pull back. They’ve distracted Assad’s border guys long enough for the other unit to cross into al-Qusayr undetected.
“Let’s go,” orders Hussein. “The [Syrian] helicopter will be here soon.” We retreat as bullets continue to fly our way. The trees in the orchard are our only cover, and they don’t offer much protection.
The skirmish is part of a nearly nightly series of clashes along the Syria-Lebanon border that seems to indicate the civil war is morphing into a regional conflagration. A week after my visit with Hussein, a car bomb exploded in Beirut, killing an important pro-rebel Lebanese intelligence officer and sparking battles in the streets of the capital and Tripoli that resulted in at least seven deaths. Neighboring Jordan and Iraq are accepting refugees in an attempt to contain the spread of civil strife while simultaneously avoiding direct involvement.
In Lebanon, staying neutral isn’t so easy. The nation’s deeply divided population and weak central government have left it vulnerable to spillover from nearby conflicts. While most of the world is focused on the slaughter in Aleppo and rising tensions between Syria and Turkey, another, potentially devastating conflict is breaking out right next door.
People Are Dying and Governments Are Falling in Lebanon
Friday’s assassination of General Wissam al-Hassan has rocked Lebanon to its core. Every night since the car bomb exploded in the Achrafieh district of East Beirut, people have been fighting in the streets. Thick plumes of black smoke are choking the Beirut sky and kids as young as 11 roam around wearing masks, setting shit on fire, and terrifying the local population. I was shot at while driving through Tariq al-Jadida on Friday night, and in a separate incident a friend of mine was shot at 16 times.
The anti-Syrian Sunnis of the March 14th Alliance are making a show of power to their pro-Syrian foes in the March 8th Alliance, the latter of whom currently retain a precarious grip on government in Lebanon. Heavy gunfire could be heard around the country, with incidents reported in Naama, Sidon, Tripoli, and all around West Beirut. From what I read, in Naama, Sunni gunmen set up roadblocks and were checking people’s ID cards to find out what sect they belonged to—a throwback to the civil war days.
I also read that a person was stabbed and three people—two of them children—were killed during last night’s sectarian clashes. In the Sunni stronghold of Tripoli, a nine-year-old girl was shot in the head by a sniper.
General Wissam al-Hassan’s funeral, which took place on the streets of downtown Beirut yesterday afternoon and was attended by thousands, turned into a mass political rally in Martyrs’ Square. Every political group whose flag flies under the banner of the March 14th alliance and that opposes Lebanon’s ruling body’s links to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime was there.
At the end of the funeral, popular Lebanese TV presenter Nadim Koteich grabbed a microphone and demanded that the young, angry men in the rally rush to the offices of Prime Minister Najib Mikati and occupy them. “Mikati will fall down today,” he shouted. On Saturday, Mikati did indeed hand President Michel Suleiman his resignation, but had been asked to stay on for the time being in the interests of stability.
And so, a crowd of several hundred tried to storm police barricades and reach the governmental buildings but were dispersed as police forces fired tear gas and gun rounds, which put two people in the hospital. Many people see Mikati (a Sunni) as a Hezbollah puppet and blame him for not preventing the assassination of the General. As the crowd ran in the streets, they chanted “Mikati’s sister’s pussy” in Arabic, which is a less eloquent way of saying “Fuck your sister, Mikati.”
Hezbollah’s Theme Park
Hezbollah has built a multi-million dollar theme park celebrating its military victories over Israel. It’s the latest PR offensive from the Iranian-funded Shia Muslim militia its followers call the “Party of God.” Host Ryan Duffy heads to Lebanon to visit this bizarre tourist site to learn how this group that started as a ragtag militia in the 1980s has skillfully used propaganda to transform itself into a military and political force to be reckoned with, and how anti-Hezbollah groups are trying to compete in this war of words.