Low Expectations Surround Lebanese Military Deployment in Tripoli

Andrew McGregor

October 31, 2013

The latest intervention of the Lebanese Army into the coastal city of Tripoli to force an end to armed clashes between the impoverished Sunni Bab al-Tebbaneh and the Alawite Jabal Muhsin districts of Tripoli has not been accompanied by high expectations. The military is making its 18th intervention in Tripoli since May, 2008, with none of the earlier operations so far having had any significant impact on the sectarian conflict between the two neighborhoods. The Army is already overstretched in dealing with security disturbances across Lebanon, including cross-border shelling by both sides in the Syrian conflict, engagements with Sunni gunmen in southern Lebanon and a wave of car bombings. Tripoli, a city of roughly 200,000 people, is 80% Sunni with Christian and Alawite minorities making up the difference.

The latest round of violence began on October 21 following a televised speech by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in which the Syrian leader appeared to say Jabal Muhsin was part of Syria, forcing the Lebanese Army to return to the city to restore order (al-Manar TV [Beirut], October 23; al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 29). Sniper fire from both sides greeted the arrival of the troops, who acting Prime Minister Najib Mikati said would “be strict and impartial” in dealing with the ongoing violence (al-Jazeera, October 28). Seventeen people have been killed and more than 100 wounded in fighting that has derailed a forthcoming disarmament campaign in the city (al-Jazeera, October 28). Intense at times, the conflict has seen the use of rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and mortars.

Lebanese troops moved further into the conflict zone on October 29. After a short and relative calm, fighting broke out again on the evening of October 30 after Al-Hizb al-Arabi al-Dimuqrati (HAD – Arab Democratic Party) founder Ali Eid (father of HAD secretary-general and effective current leader Rifaat al-Eid) was called in for questioning by the Internal Security Forces’ (ISF) Information Branch in connection with the bombings. The HAD declared that the call was nothing less than the declaration of “a new war against Jabal Mohsen” (Daily Star [Beirut], October 31).

In the 1980s, Syrian support allowed the HAD and its armed wing of the time, al-Fursan al-Hammur al-Arabi, to develop Jabal Muhsin as a strategic stronghold overlooking the city of Tripoli, giving the small Alawite community an enormous advantage over the more numerous Sunnis. While the ongoing civil war in Syria has inflamed tensions in Tripoli, it is not solely responsible for inter-communal clashes that have practically become a way of life in parts of Tripoli over nearly four decades.

Preliminary investigations into the twin car bombings of Tripoli’s Sunni al-Salam and al-Taqwa mosques that killed 47 people on August 23 indicated the bombings had been carried out by elements from Jabal Muhsin with the support of Syrian intelligence services. The summons for Ali Eid came after Ahmad Muhammad Ali, a personal guard and driver for HAD leader Rifaat Eid, confessed to army intelligence that, working under Rifaat Eid’s orders, he had helped Ahmad Merhi flee to Syria from Jabal Muhsin (Daily Star [Beirut], October 30). Merhi has been identified as the driver who planted the car bomb outside the Taqwa mosque. Rifaat Eid, meanwhile, has suggested that the charges were prompted by Saudi demands as a means of taking revenge for Hezbollah participation in the Syrian conflict (al-Safir [Beirut], October 18).

Seven suspects in the bombings were charged by a military prosecutor on October 14, though four of the suspects remain at large. One of the detainees, HAD associate Yusuf Diab, is reported to have confessed to driving the car bomb that exploded outside al-Salam mosque (Daily Star [Beirut], October 14). Ziad Allouki, a leading Sunni militia leader in Bab al-Tebbaneh, has warned of intensified clashes if the Army does not arrest Rifaat al-Eid in connection with the August mosque bombings (Daily Star [Beirut], October 28).

Sunni Gunmen in Bab al-Tebanneh  (AFP/Joseph Eid)

Former Prime Minister and Future Movement head Sa’ad Hariri has been especially critical of government efforts to restore order in Tripoli as well as Syria’s “dirty war” in the city:

Is it acceptable for the Lebanese Army with its elite units to become a false witness in the war against Tripoli? Is it right for security agencies and local officials to monitor the situation and announce their inability to confront the dangers in the city? … As for us, we will not be silent toward the injustice in Tripoli … we hold the state with all its official, security and military agencies fully responsible for abandoning the city and its residents and leaving it an arena for such armed chaos (Daily Star [Beirut], October 28).

Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah weighed in on the conflict on October 28, proclaiming his support for the military intervention, but expressing the hope that the residents of Tripoli would cooperate with the security forces rather than call for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Jabhat al-Nusra to enter from Syria and interfere, “as that complicates the situation and does not resolve it.” Nasrallah said that the state “knows a lot about the cells whose aim is to inflame the situation in Lebanon” but had taken no action against them.

Druze leader and Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) leader Walid al-Jumblatt has expressed astonishment at the futility of the endless political violence and the belief of some that “clashes between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Muhsin will change the course of bloody developments in Syria or will alter the existing dynamics in this conflict (Daily Star [Beirut], October 28).

The fighting in Tripoli appears to be closely connected to the launch of the long-delayed Qalamun offensive by the Syrian Army, which is designed to drive rebel groups from Syria’s east Lebanon (or “Anti-Lebanon”) mountains, in particular the Saudi-backed Liwa al-Islam of Zahran Alloush, which fields over 3,000 fighters and 23 T-72 tanks (al-Safir [Beirut], October 18).  Once the campaign begins in earnest, Tripoli will become important as both a supply point and place of refuge if things turn bad for Sunni rebels operating in the Anti-Lebanon.

The situation in Tripoli may soon be further complicated by the entry of the Ahrar Tripoli, a new Sunni militia being formed by former ISF director Ashraf Rifi. The project is reported to have Saudi funding under the direct supervision of Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan (al-Akhbar [Beirut], October 29).

Lebanon has been ruled by a caretaker government since March that appears to not have the will, the ability or the mandate to restore security and stability to an ever more volatile situation. Tripoli’s mayor, Nadir Ghazal, has complained that Tripoli was “dying” from the continuous outbreaks of fighting in the city (Daily Star [Beirut], October 30).

This article first appeared in the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor on October 31, 2013