A Syrian Proxy War Is Being Fought in Syria
“If we all piss on them at the same time, they will drown.” The Sunni fighter in Bab al-Tabbaneh tells me this while gesturing up the hill towards the neighboring Alawite district of Jabal Mohsen. Over the past eight days, fighting between these two neighborhoods in Lebanon’s second city of Tripoli has claimed nearly 30 lives and resulted in over 200 injuries. But while Tripoli’s Sunnis may outnumber Alawites to a ratio of 4:1, there is little chance of either side gaining an advantage any time soon. Instead, an ongoing battle of attrition is being played out, in the middle of which the Lebanese army regularly finds itself caught.
Clashes between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen are nothing new. The two have been going at it for decades, yet they have started clashing far more regularly since the beginning of the uprising in neighboring Syria two years ago. This latest outbreak of violence began at the same time as an Hezbollah supported assault just over the Syrian border in the strategic town of Qusair. This has only served to fuel speculation that what’s going on in Tripoli is not just linked to the Syrian civil war, but is actually a directproxy of it—with the Alawites of Jabal Mohsen supporting embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the Sunnis of Bab al-Tabbaneh on the side of the rebels who are trying to topple him.
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.