The thump of heavy machine gun fire echoed from tower blocks as thick black smoke billowed from the impoverished neighborhood of Bab al-Tebbaneh, a scene all too familiar for residents of this northern Lebanese city.
Usually the frequent bouts of violence here are sectarian, pitting Tripoli’s Sunnis against a small community of Alawites, a Shiite splinter sect. However, the fighting that erupted Friday and has left more than 40 people dead marks an unprecedented direct confrontation between the Lebanese Army and Sunni radical militants who support the extremist Islamic State (IS).
The fighting follows a series of near-daily small-scale shooting and bomb attacks in recent weeks against Lebanese troops in north Lebanon. The suspected Sunni perpetrators accuse the army of persecuting Sunnis and of being under the control of Hezbollah, the powerful Iran-backed Shiite party. The army has not directly addressed such accusations, but says it answers to the Lebanese state.
“We have lost all trust in the army,” says Sheikh Bilal Baroudi, a Sunni cleric from Tripoli who tried to help mediate a cease-fire in Tripoli over the weekend. “There is a lot of anger within the Sunni community, and it will not change until the army proves it is no longer a puppet of Hezbollah.”
The army is regarded by most Lebanese as the primary guarantor of the country’s stability. The army broke apart twice during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, both times presaging some of the worst violence of that conflict.
Since the end of the war, it became almost taboo to publicly criticize the army. Now that taboo is dissolving among some Sunnis who see the army as cooperating closely with Hezbollah to crack down on Lebanese supporters of anti-regime forces in Syria. They note that the army has not blocked Hezbollah from dispatching several thousand fighters to Syria where they have played a key role in defending the regime of President Basher al-Assad.
At least four Sunni soldiers have defected from the army to join IS or Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, issuing videotaped confessions to confirm their new allegiances. The army has played down the desertions, and the numbers are insignificant and represent little imminent threat to its cohesion. But they do highlight a rising sentiment of distrust towards the military among some Sunnis.
According to Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Lebanese Army’s current strength stands at 61,400 with another 4,100 personnel in the Air Force and Navy. The Army includes members of all main sects in Lebanon, with Sunnis comprising 35 percent and Shiites 27 percent of the total force.
“Four desertions by enlisted personnel out of a force of 22,900 Sunnis in the [Army] represent anomalies that have yet to translate into a trend,” says Mr. Nerguizian, an expert on the Lebanese military. “Most of the desertions are by very junior personnel from areas directly affected not only by the Syria crisis but also decades of government neglect."
The current clashes were triggered by an army raid last Thursday on an apartment in the town of Asoun in northern Lebanon in which several Lebanese and Syrian militants were detained. The leader of the group was Ahmad Mikati, a Sunni from Tripoli with a long history of militancy. He is suspected of beheading a Lebanese soldier, one of some 20 soldiers and policemen being held hostage by IS and Jabhat al-Nusra in rugged mountains along Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria.
Plan to proclaim villages part of Islamic State
Mr. Mikati’s group reportedly was planning to carry out suicide bomb attacks against Shiite targets during the annual 10-day period of commemorations for the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a revered Shiite figure. He also reportedly planned to seize several villages in north Lebanon and proclaim them affiliated to the Islamic State. The Shiite mourning period began Sunday.
On Friday, clashes broke out in the Bab el-Tebbaneh district of central Tripoli when the army carried out follow-up raids. The fighting saw the army use missile-firing helicopters for the first time in Tripoli to target the militants’ stronghold.
Sunday, the area around Bab el-Tebbaneh was sealed off by the army. Traffic was diverted away from the vicinity with vehicles passing through multiple checkpoints manned by tense-looking soldiers.
“Yalla, go, go!” a soldier at a checkpoint yelled, waving his hands at vehicles as the crack of sniper rounds filled the air.
Just north of Bab el-Tebbaneh on Tripoli’s outskirts, supporters of the militants blocked the main road with burning tires.
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, warned Sunday of a “huge, dangerous plan to fuel strife in Tripoli and the north” and emphasized his support for the army.
Sunni suspicions of Hezbollah
But some Sunni political and religious figures voiced suspicions that Hezbollah was attempting to exploit the violence in north Lebanon by encouraging the army to use force against the militants.
“Who is pushing the army toward a military solution against militants even though it threatens the lives of soldiers and civilians?” asked Sheikh Zeid Zakaria, the Sunni mufti of the Akkar province in north Lebanon.
The fighting in Tripoli also sparked clashes further north. Saturday afternoon, an army patrol was ambushed by gunmen at Mhamara, 7 miles north of Tripoli, killing two soldiers. Clashes spread to the neighboring village of Bhannine as followers of Sheikh Khaled Hoblos, a local Sunni cleric, fought Lebanese troops from a mosque and school.
Bursts of automatic gunfire coming from orange groves near Bhannine caused bystanders to scurry for cover and for traffic to suddenly accelerate along the main road or screech to a stop, using buildings for cover.
“This is a big problem for us,” says Khaled, a resident of Bhannine who was sheltering beside a building. “We are with the Lebanese army and leave it in their hands to finish this. God willing it will not get worse.”
Adding pressure on the Lebanese government, Jabhat al-Nusra warned that it would execute by 5 a.m. Monday a Shiite policeman it is holding captive in east Lebanon. The deadline passed with no further news.
On Monday morning, fighting died away in Tripoli as soldiers moved into Bab el-Tebbaneh, the surviving militants apparently having slipped away overnight.
Paradoxically, the poorer rural Sunni-populated areas of north Lebanon where support for extremist groups can be found is also a major source of recruitment into the Lebanese army. The vast majority of Sunnis in Lebanon remain politically moderate and continue to support the army, but as the fighting in Tripoli over the weekend demonstrated it only takes a handful of militants to trigger violence and bloodshed.
“These people [the militants] have great hatred for the Syrian regime and Hezbollah,” says Sheikh Baroudi, the Sunni cleric. “The army is trying to arrest them, but it will not be easy and they won’t give up.”