Poverty and the Syrian Crisis: Why Violence is Returning to Lebanon
Age-old battlegrounds in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli have descended into violence once again. While the events are highly disturbing they are not necessarily surprising for Lebanon’s residents, who have grown accustomed to violent clashes along the impoverished sectarian divides in the city.
However, the protracted spiral of violence across the border in Syria is compounding the already fractious environment in Lebanon and especially in Tripoli. Sheikh Mazen al-Muhammad, a leading Salafi figure in the city, says, "You won’t find a household in Lebanon, especially in the north here in Tripoli and Acca that has not suffered terrible things at the hands of (the Syrian) regime. We are in conflict with this regime."
This most recent bout of fighting was predominantly fought, as usual, between the anti-Syrian regime Sunnis in Bab el-Tabbeneh and the pro-Syrian regime Alawites – co-religionists with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - in the neighbouring district of Jabel Mouessin. Perhaps the difference with this conflagration was the spark that ignited the fire.
A local Islamist, Shadi al-Mawlawi, was lured into a trap and detained by the Lebanese security forces Saturday last week amid accusations that he was linked to al-Qaeda. Armed fighting in the city soon followed, and the already strained relations between Lebanon’s security services and many of the communities in the north were frayed further.
A week before the fighting began Khaled Daher, a vociferous opposition MP for the northern town of Akkar said, "The army is answerable to Hizbullah and the Syrian regime. Officers and units within the army follow them." His berating of the army echoes the opinions of many opponents to the Assad government who are increasingly denouncing the Lebanese security apparatus as an extension of its Syrian counterpart.
When asked, amid the sound of rocket propelled grenades smashing into buildings in a Tripoli neighbourhood, if this bout of fighting was any different to previous rounds, a young resident responded, "Yes, we are fed up with this situation in Tripoli. Everyone knows the army is with the Syrians here and the people are not."
Conversely, those who oppose the armed opposition in Syria highlight the strain the army has been put under to not embroil Lebanon in the conflict and control the flow of arms and fighters across the border. The notoriously weak border between the two countries and the explicit support for the uprising among large pockets of the Lebanese has enabled the country to become a conduit for weapons and supplies.
"There are many young men who have gone from here to fight there alongside the revolutionaries. Some are still there, some have returned and some have died," says Sheikh Shady Jabara. In 2003 Sheikh Shady was imprisoned for blowing up a local American fast food chain restaurant. He now commits himself to proselytizing the ultra conservative Salafi doctrine.
Although he denounces indiscriminate violence such as the attack he carried out, he considers the armed opposition in Syria and the battles with supporters of the Syrian regime in Lebanon as legitimate. He says around 50 to 70 fighters from northern Lebanon have joined the armed uprising across the border. If his estimations are correct this is a relatively insignificant contribution in the grand scheme of the internal battles wracking Syria.
However, a Syrian activist who regularly crosses between the two countries complained recently that small bands of ideological fighters, some coming from Lebanon, were fomenting violence even when it did not serve the interests of the uprising.
Last month a master bomb maker for Fatah al-Islam, an al-Qaeda inspired organisation that came into armed conflict with the Lebanese army in 2007, was reportedly killed in the Syrian town al-Qusayr. Furthermore, a series of bomb attacks in Syrian cities have also led to speculation that more ideologically extreme elements are trying to destabilise and fragment the country.
Small groups or individual fighters may be crossing into Syria to fight but in the main there is little encouragement or organisation within Lebanon for the fighters to go. The opposition wants weapons and not men but according to a member of the Syrian member of the opposition in Tripoli, Ahmad Moussa, the kinds of weapons that they can source in Lebanon will not suffice for their battles across the border.
"The revolution does not need light arms, it needs heavy arms because light arms can no longer do the job… If we have Stinger missiles, there is no more Bashar," he says.
For Sheikh Shady the priority is for the men to stay and fight on the home front when violence erupts as it has this past week. "They revolution doesn’t need them, they are needed here. There are (fighters for the Assad regime) here with Hizbullah and their allies," he reasons.
Bab el-Tebbaneh and the surrounding neighbourhoods are destitute after generations of economic neglect. What is more there is a lack of political leadership as the traditional Sunni elites have failed to provide either the material support or the military backing that the people on the ground want.
Sheikh Shady explains, "People don’t like to fight but everything has its time and place. If I am in school then I want a pen and paper, if I’m fighting then I need weapons."