A Sunni fighter in the neigbhourhood of Bab El Tebbaneh. Photo by our Observer Ibrahim Chalhoub.
Clashes between opponents and supporters of the Syrian regime continued for a fifth day on Friday in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. Our Observer, who has been following some of the fighters, told us about the lawlessness that now reigns in parts of the city.
Just like last May, the fighting pits residents of several neighbourhoods dominated by Sunnis, most of which support the Syrian opposition, against residents of the adjacent neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen, most of whom are Alawite, a minority offshoot of Shiite Islam. The latter side with the Syrian government, whose president Bashar Al-Assad is also Alawite. The fighting is centred on the aptly-named Syria Street, which serves as a dividing line between the neighbourhoods.
This time, the violence has lasted longer and claimed more lives than in May - at least 14 so far. Among several killed Friday was a Sunni cleric, 28-year-old Sheikh Khaled al-Baradei; this further angered the Sunni fighters, leading to fears of escalating violence. Additionally, more than a hundred people have been injured, including a journalist and a technician from Sky News Arabia. An attempt at a ceasefire on Wednesday was short-lived.
Last week, tensions were rekindled when a Lebanese Shiite Muslim clan kidnapped at least 20 Sunnis in retaliation for the kidnapping of one of their members in Syria.
Lebanon spent three decades under Syria’s domination, ending in 2005. The country’s coalition government, led by Hezbollah, has long stood by Al-Assad, but is currently trying to distance itself from its troubled neighbour.
Smoke from a rocket attack. Video filmed in the neigbhourhood of Bab El-Tebbaneh on Friday.
“I saw a man poke his head out of his doorway – he was just a local resident, not a fighter – and get hit by sniper fire”
Ibrahim Chalhoub is a local journalist. He lives in a neighbourhood two kilometres away from the scene of the clashes.
I went out in the streets where the fighting was taking place on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday during the day. Each time, I followed the Sunni fighters from the neighbourhood of Bab El Tebbaneh as they fought the Alawites from the adjacent neighbourhood. Thursday night, however, there were so many snipers and so much bloodshed that I had to stay home.This violence is much worse than the clashes between the two sides back in May. I saw the fighters use lots of brand-new weapons. They seem to have been stocking up. They had machine guns with night vision binoculars, but also rocket launchers. The Alawite fighters are equally well-equipped.During the daytime, they clash sporadically; at night, it’s continuous. Last night, which was by far the worst, I heard explosions from 1 a.m. on – and I live two kilometres away from where the fighting is taking place.When I first went out there on Tuesday, snipers were already shooting at anything that moved. I saw a man who poked his head out of his doorway – he was just a local resident, not a fighter – and got hit by sniper fire coming from the Alawites’ side. The Sunni fighters had difficulty extracting him. He died.Photo by our Observer Ibrahim Chalhoub.“I saw the Sunni fighters insult soldiers and repeatedly chase them out of the neighbourhood”Both sides shoot haphazardly. It’s all very disorganised. The fighters I was with shot lots of rockets toward the Alawites’ neighbourhood, and didn’t seem to care whether these might land on innocent civilians.Military armoured vehicles weave in and out of the area of the fighting, but they don’t stay long. I saw the Sunni fighters insult soldiers and chase them out repeatedly. The army isn’t taking any risks because the government hasn’t given them a clear mandate to intervene, and they’re very afraid of losing their men. [Editor's Note: On Thursday, the army was officially given the green light to restore order in Tripoli.]All the neighbourhoods surrounding those where the fighting is taking place have basically shut down. In mine, all the stores are closed, and people avoid going outside. Right now, we’re taking it day by day. Nobody knows how long this fighting is going to last. I’m hoping it will stay confined to Tripoli, but I worry that if it were to spread, it could lead to a civil war. [In an interview with FRANCE 24, Lebanese MP Samy Gemayel also spoke of his fears that, "if nothing is done, armed groups could eventually lead the country into civil war."]Many Alawites here practically consider themselves bi-national – they have houses, friends and family in Syria, as well as fond memories of the years when Syria’s Alawite-led government controlled Lebanon. Sunnis also have friends and family in Syria, but who are against the regime – and some of whom are even in prison there. For both sides, the Syrian conflict has become their conflict.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure.