Events in Tripoli Draw Lebanon Further Into the Syrian Crisis

Paul Salem argues that the recent armed clashes in Tripoli are an extension of the Syrian revolution’s sectarian issues. Lebanon’s official policy of neutrality is being tested, as the country’s own sects are mobilizing in support of or against the revolution. The Mikati government may also be under Syrian pressure to support the Assad regime. 

al-monitor A Lebanese soldier holds his machine gun in a military vehicle during the army deployment at a street near the Sunni Muslim Bab al-Tebbaneh neighborhood in Tripoli May 15, 2012. Photo by Reuters/Omar Ibrahim.

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May 19, 2012

The recent armed clashes that erupted in the Lebanese city of Tripoli [May 12-14] indicate a mounting mobilization of support for the Syrian revolution. This is chiefly focused in the Sunni areas of Tripoli, Al-Dinniyeh and Akkar. In the midst of these events, the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati is losing its ability to maintain the policy of "self-disassociation."

The clashes also signal a shift in the internal balance of power. The rising armed Sunni presence in the north is not only challenging Hezbollah’s military presence in Beirut, the Beqaa Valley and the south, but also the group's control over the government. The events also highlight northern Lebanon’s growing support for the Syrian revolution, which would in turn inaugurate a new period of tensions in Lebanon regarding the relationship between the two countries.

The clashes that took place over the weekend were a result of several factors. However, the main event that triggered the clashes was the arrest of Shadi al-Mawlawi — a young Tripoli Islamist who supports the Syrian revolution — for allegedly being linked to al-Qaeda and terrorist cells. Even prior to his arrest, the Salafist and Islamist groups in Tripoli were protesting the five-year detention of other Islamists who have been held without trial. Al-Mawlawi’s arrest was the straw that broke the camel's back.

Consequently, the Salafists demonstrated in Tripoli’s main square and gunmen were scattered throughout the city's neighborhoods. The arrest also came a few months after sporadic armed clashes between the Alawite Jabal Mohsen area and other poor Sunni neighborhoods in Tripoli, such as Bab al-Tabbeneh. Cautious calm has returned to the city, but tensions persist and can be ignited at any given time.

The way in which Mawlawi was arrested — by the Lebanese Directorate of General Security — prompted a wide range of reactions. General Security’s leadership in Tripoli has close ties to Hezbollah, especially within the offices of Finance Minister Muhammad al-Safadi. General Security, which is assigned to control the maritime ports and airports, took over the functions of the police and Internal Security. Besides aggravating the politically diverse residents of the area, this move also angered the command of the army and military intelligence because they were not informed about the arrest operation and had to deal with its repercussions.

This operation and its consequences have placed Mikati's government in a critical position. The government's policy of self-disassociation is collapsing as General Security continues to pursue wanted Syrian activists. Conversely, the Sunni street is publicly supporting the Syrian revolution.

During the events in Tripoli, reports emerged that the Syrian government is exerting pressure on Mikati to support the Assad regime. Prime Minister Mikati continues to adopt the policy of self-disassociation, even though middle ground is collapsing as different Lebanese sects have begun to align with or against the Syrian uprising.

The Sunni show of force in northern Lebanon came as a delayed response to Hezbollah's taking control of Beirut in May 2008. Back then, Hezbollah defeated the armed Sunni groups and — in addition to its control over the south and the Beqaa Valley — proved its superiority in the capital. Hezbollah also used its power to defeat the government of Saad al-Hariri in January 2011 and controlled the government. The Sunni groups in Tripoli seek to change the balance of power by emulating Hezbollah’s own strategy: utilizing arms, religious slogans and foreign support to establish their own exclusive areas and security zones. With no forces in the north, Hezbollah is incapable of reaching these groups, and the vulnerable Lebanese government cannot physically impose its authority in these areas. Some political analysts discussed the emergence of a "northern suburb" to challenge the "southern suburb" controlled by Hezbollah.

If things continue in this direction, it will result in internally and regionally dangerous repercussions. At the Lebanese level, the tensions might not only lead to the fall of the government but it may also incite security tensions in Beirut. Hezbollah has been enjoying a comfort zone since 2008, but it will be forced to find ways to confront this new challenge.

So far, the Christian areas are acting like buffer zones, with Sunni north on one side and the capital and south on the other. However the Christian groups allied with the opposing sides of the clashes could be forced to take more decisive stances. The return of nationwide sectarian conflicts in Lebanon — beyond the Sunni-Alawite conflicts in Bab al-Tibbaneh and Jabal Muhsin in Tripoli — is still not a current possibility, but there is no doubt that internal tensions are on the rise.

On the foreign level, the support of the Lebanese north for the Syrian revolution might draw a reaction from the Syrian regime. The Lebanese north is near the important Syrian cities of Homs and Hama, and it also borders the strategic Alawite areas in northwestern Syria. The Syrian regime was capable of extending its control over the Lebanese north from the time its forces and intelligence entered Lebanon until their withdrawal in April 2006. After their withdrawal, the Syrian regime lost its control and Hezbollah was incapable of replacing Syrian control in the north.

It is worth noting that the Lebanese-Syrian border witnessed an escalation of events in the past months, in which the Syrian forces opened fire into Lebanese territory and had occasionally entered the country. We shall wait and see if the encircled Syrian regime will respond to the growing mobilization in the Lebanese north with a more comprehensive and intense escalation.

The situation in Tripoli is back to normal, but the recent shifts in the balance of power will have their share of repercussions in the long run. It is not a surprise for Lebanon to eventually be incapable of maintaining its policy of self-disassociation over the ongoing events in Syria, especially given the tight social and sectarian ties between the two countries.

For this reason, it is necessary for Lebanon’s leading figures to find a way to politically address these new dynamics that would protect Lebanon from chaos and instability. The regional and international leaders should realize and accept the sensitivity of the Lebanese situation, and work on maintaining stability. At the same time, they should also exert extra efforts to induce a positive political change in Syria that would both guarantee the Syrian people’s rights and spare them from a long and devastating civil war.

The events that took place in Tripoli indicate that the civil war in Syria will not stay within its borders. The effects of such a war will extend into Lebanon, and perhaps into other countries as well.

Paul Salem is the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon and a member of the Al-Monitor board of directors.

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