The year-long crisis in Syria has exacerbated sectarian tensions between two adjacent districts in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city, transforming them into a microcosm of the turmoil and bloodshed wracking Syria.
Although clashes are not uncommon here, the past three days have witnessed some of the fiercest fighting between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli in years, killing eight people, including a Lebanese soldier, and wounding more than 50. Mortar rounds were used for the first time, spurring hundreds of panicked people to leave their homes.
“We will not have peace here until we get rid of the Syrian regime. All our problems, all the violence, all the poverty we suffer here are because of the Syrian regime,” says Sheikh Bilal Masri, a militant Sunni cleric, talking over the crackle of a walkie talkie on his coffee table.
The thin, wiry preacher, who follows the austere Salafi sect of Sunni Islam, says he has not slept for three days and suffers from a persistent cough which he blames on smoke inhalation from burning tires and explosive residue. He picks up an old rifle fitted with a telescopic sight and pats the wooden stock affectionately.
“I shot two of them with this,” he says, handing over the French sniper rifle dating from the late 1940s.
A few hours earlier, he and other Sunni militants had been manning a frontline of bullet-holed, fire-scorched buildings and barricades of car tires while taking pot shots at his enemies hidden among the tower blocks in the adjacent hilltop district of Jabal Mohsen, home to Lebanon’s small population of Alawites, an obscure splinter sect of Shiite Islam.
The Sunnis of Tripoli broadly support the mainly Sunni opposition in Syria. But the residents of Jabal Mohsen are members of the same minority Alawite sect which forms the backbone of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
On the main street in Bab Tebbaneh at the foot of Jabal Mohsen hill, Lebanese special-forces troops hunched over heavy machine guns mounted on armored personnel carriers or humvees. Other soldiers rebuilt fortifications for small outposts damaged in the fighting. A pipe severed by bullets sent a spray of water into the air. The street was filled with garbage, broken glass, and rubble from exploding rocket-propelled grenades.
One Sunni resident ruefully examined his black BMW, which was riddled with bullet holes, the windows shot out. Others cast cautious glances at the apartment blocks of Jabal Mohsen towering above, from where snipers still continued to send the occasional round cracking overhead.
The Alawites in Tripoli blame the resumption of violence on the Sunnis living in the neighborhoods that surround their isolated hilltop stronghold.
‘We are few, they are many. Why would we want to pick a fight with them?” asks the bodyguard to an Alawite leader.
The fighting was sparked on Saturday evening by the arrest of Shadi Mawlawi, a suspected Islamic militant, who was later charged along with five other people for contacting an unspecified “terrorist group.” Islamists in Tripoli demonstrated against Mr. Mawlawi’s arrest and blockaded the city center. When the protesters marched toward an office of a pro-Syrian political faction, the Army intervened. Shots were fired and shortly afterward, clashes broke out between Bab Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods.
A resumption of violence between the two districts is widely expected.
“The guns are ready and the people are ready,” said one young man standing beside a barricade.
Local politicians scrambled to curb the violence in Tripoli amid deteriorating security along most of Lebanon’s northern border with Syria.
“Lebanon is at the edge of a volcano,” Najib Mikati, the Lebanese prime minister, warned Tuesday.