Fighting Syria spillover, Lebanese troops deploy in Bekaa Valley

The Syrian civil war has been aggravating sectarian tensions in Lebanon, and creating room to operate for kidnappers and smugglers. The Lebanese army is trying to get control of the situation.

Hussein Malla
Lebanese soldiers deploying into Tripoli's Sunni Bab Tabbeneh neighborhood last Wednesday.

The Lebanese army deployed into lawless areas of the northern Bekaa Valley over the weekend, shutting down unofficial checkpoints and pursuing car thieves and kidnappers as part of a broader national security plan to mitigate the damage being done by spillover from the civil war in neighboring Syria.

The security plan was devised by the newly-formed Lebanese government in response to the latest outbreak of fighting in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, between the impoverished neighborhoods of Bab Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen whose Sunni and Alawite residents respectively support opposing sides in Syria. Two weeks of fighting in March killed at least 30 people.

While the enhanced security measures have brought about a cessation of fighting in Tripoli and are being greeted with broad support from a nation weary of political violence and lawlessness, it is doubtful that the plan can deliver long-term stability. Lebanon remains deeply polarized over the war in Syria and has suffered the backlash through a wave of car bomb attacks, cross-border rocket fire, worsening Shiite-Sunni relations, and the presence of over a million Syrian refugees, who are straining the capabilities of the government and aid agencies.

“This will not last. Today the army is here, but tomorrow we will be back to fighting,” says Abu Bara’, a Sunni Salafi cleric and commander of a local militia in Bab Tebbaneh. "Abu Bara'" is a nom de guerre.

Telegraphing the punch

The security plan was launched last week when army troops moved into the area separating Bab Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen to arrest gunmen and remove barricades. However, the names of those targeted for arrest were leaked ahead of the operation in what appears to have been a deliberate bid to allow wanted figures to flee to avoid a possible armed confrontation when the soldiers arrived.

Among those who departed were Ali Eid, the head of Lebanon's small Alawite community, a Shiite splinter sect to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs. Mr. Eid was wanted for questioning in connection with a double car bombing of two Sunni mosques in Tripoli last August which left 47 people dead and more than 400 wounded. He is alleged to have fled his home on Lebanon’s northern border and taken a boat across the Kabir River to reach Syria. His son, Rifaat, allegedly also slipped into Syria last week.

On Saturday, a military court in Beirut formally charged Rifaat Eid and 11 other people with belonging to an armed group, possession of weapons, and inciting strife.

With local militia leaders and gunmen having gone into hiding, the army move in Tripoli was largely uneventful.

“We stress on going forward with this security plan in the best way possible,” said Nohad Mashnouq, the Lebanese interior minister on Saturday. “We will bear the responsibility of this plan’s failure or success, but it has proved to be very successful until now.”

Poverty and communal wounds

Still, the security plan for Tripoli is little more than a band aid over a gaping wound of historical animosity between the adjacent Sunni and Alawite communities aggravated by poverty, neglected infrastructure, lack of employment and manipulation by local politicians. A United Nations agency reported in 2012 that 51 percent of Tripoli was living in extreme poverty, earning less than $4 a day. If nothing is done to improve economic and living conditions in Tripoli, continued sectarian clashes are almost inevitable.

And despite initial declarations of good will from Sunni and Alawite residents last week, protesters marched in two separate demonstrations on Sunday. One in Bab Tebbaneh called for the pardon of those facing arrest, while the other in Jabal Mohsen protested the indictment against Rifaat Eid.

On Sunday, Lebanese troops fanned out across the northern Bekaa Valley removing checkpoints manned by members of the militant Shiite Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s checkpoints were a security measure against Sunni suicide car bombers who have repeatedly struck Shiites areas of the northern Bekaa and the southern suburbs of Beirut since November.

The bomb attacks have been claimed by militant Sunni groups as retaliation for Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria, where it is fighting on behalf of its ally, Mr. Assad.

The army intends to launch raids against criminals in the northern Bekaa, particularly car thieves and kidnappers. The Bekaa has witnessed a spate of kidnappings for ransom in the past two years usually targeting the sons of wealthy local businessmen. Some of the stolen cars have been turned into bombs targeting Shiite areas.

The Lebanese government says that the security plan will expand to include Beirut in its next phase.

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