The 14-month-old conflict in Syria is now causing unrest in neighbouring Lebanon, where violence between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime – divided along sectarian lines - is rapidly escalating. At least seven people have been killed and dozens injured since the start of clashes two days ago in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.
The violence was touched off Saturday by the arrest of a Sunni Islamist, Shadi Mawlawi, who was arrested on suspicion of “terrorism,” and charged with the crime Monday. Protesters who side with him, however, claim he simply sympathised with the Syrian rebellion.
Clashes quickly erupted between residents of Bab El-Tebbaneh, the majority of which are Sunnis, and those of Jabal Mohsen, the majority of which are Alawite, a minority offshoot of Shiite Islam, and tend to side with the Syrian government. (Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad is himself Alawite.) Fighters used not just guns but also rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles.
Since the start of the Syrian uprising, there have been fears that the conflict could spill into Lebanon, which was long under Syria’s virtual rule. Lebanon’s coalition government is led by Hezbollah, which is supportive of the Syrian government. Tripoli, however, is mainly populated by Sunnis, and has served as a refuge to many Syrian activists and refugees. According to our Syrian Observers, weapons are shipped via Tripoli to rebels in Syria.
Fighting in Tripoli on Sunday.
"People are stuck in their homes"
Maher Melhem is a freelance journalist and a blogger in Tripoli, Lebanon. He was near the area of the clashes on Monday afternoon when he spoke to FRANCE 24. He recorded audio of Sunday's clashes, here.
I hear the sound of gunfire and bombs every so often, but it’s hard to get close to the fighting itself. Snipers from both sides are spread all over the area. Many people have fled from the neighbourhoods surrounding the clashes, but in the streets where the fighting is taking place, people are stuck in their homes, as those fighting have blocked the roads. They’ve also blocked roads going in and out of the city. Throughout Tripoli, shops are closed, and people are staying indoors. The situation is getting increasingly worse. I haven’t seen anything this bad since May 2008 [when 84 people were killed in clashes between Hezbollah and pro-government factions.]I’m not surprised by this turn of events. The situation in Tripoli has been deteriorating recently, ever since the beginning of the conflict in Syria. Lebanese politicians have become completely divided between supporters of the Syrian regime and critics of it. This division is now spreading into the Lebanese population, and it’s logical that Tripoli would be the first affected as it is the closest major city to Syria. There have been demonstrations supporting the Syrian revolution nearly every week lately in Tripoli. We’ve long feared these would cause an escalation of tensions between extremists."Many Lebanese are still caught up in this sectarian system, and it's only gotten worse with the situation in Syria"Every time there are political tensions in Lebanon, clashes erupt between Salafists and Alawites in this part of the city. Many Lebanese are still caught up in this sectarian system, and it’s only gotten worse with the situation in Syria. Alawites are angered by reports that Sunnis here in Tripoli have helped ship aid and weapons to the Syrian rebels, and welcomed Syrian refugees. They were also angered, after Mawlawi’s arrest, by reports claiming that he had travelled to Syria to fight alongside the rebels.The Lebanese army is trying its best to contain the violence, but every time they try to enter the area where the clashes are taking place, they become targets. This is urban warfare – those fighting are hiding in houses, so it’s difficult to attack them without risking hurting civilians.