Nadine Elali

Tripoli clashes:
the Syria factor

The LAF campaign against Islamists could force Beirut to liaise with the Assad regime in the fight against terrorism.

LAF troops secure a position in Tripoli. (AFP/Ghassan Sweidan)

After a weekend of unprecedented battlesagainst Islamists in Tripoli, Lebanon’s army—for the time being—has quelled the immediate security threat, but faces the looming prospect of entanglement with the Syrian regime as Bashar al-Assad’s Lebanese allies call for military liaison with Damascus.


Lebanese political commentator Ali al-Amin warned in a Monday column on his Janoubia news website that the Lebanese Armed Forces’ (LAF) campaign against Islamists in Tripoli would link the former to the Syrian conflict.


In an interview with NOW, the analyst further explained that Lebanon and Syria will be perceived as fighting the same enemy based on the pretext that there are terrorist cells in Lebanon in direct contact with their counterparts opposing Assad in Syria. As the LAF continues to tax its resources confronting Islamist threats, Amin added, the Lebanese government will find itself considering asking Syria for a helping hand.


“It creates a need for the Lebanese army to coordinate with the Syrian army for the fight against extremism.”


Damascus, in turn, has been seeking Western recognition as a legitimate partner in the fight against terrorism, as seen by their political messaging since the beginning of US-led strikes against ISIS in Syria in late-September. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has repeatedly expressed his country’s readiness to cooperate with the West at UN meetings, while the FM’s deputy, Faysal Mokdad, saidthat Syria should be part of any international effort against terror.


“If Lebanon agrees to coordinate [with Syria on anti-terror efforts],” Amin said, “the regime will perceive this as US recognition of it being a legitimate partner in the fight against terror.”


Officially, the Lebanese government since 2011 has maintained a “dissociation policy” to avoid any entanglement in the conflict raging in Syria. This political decision—already ignored by Hezbollah in 2013 when it publicly declared its military support for the Assad regime—was not enough to prevent the Syrian war from embroiling Lebanon’s army. In August, Islamist fighters based in the barren stretches between Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley and Syria’s Qalamoun raided the border town of Arsal, kidnapping Lebanese army soldiers after days of fierce battles.


Since then, Assad’s March 8 coalition allies in Lebanon have repeatedly called for coordination with the Syrian regime to fight the threat of extremist groups, the latest of which was made by former minister and head of the Arab Tawhid Party Wiam Wahhab as fighting raged in Tripoli. During an appearance on Al-Jadeed’s The Week in an Hour political analysis program, the Druze politician advised the Lebanese army to “seek the Syrian army’s support and to consider liaising with it in the fight against terrorism.”


Wahhab, who is known for his staunch support for Syria’s Assad regime, is believed to be a regime mouthpiece in charge of conveying Damascus’ political line in Lebanon. “Do you know what would have happened in Tripoli had the Syrian regime not been controlling the border?” Wahhab warned, “We were going to witness a coup by the Islamic State similar to that of Mosul.”


The pro-Assad politician also referenced Jean Qahwaji’s bombshell October 9 interview with Le Figaro, in which the LAF chief warned that the Islamic State had directed sleeper cells in the Akkar and Tripoli to work toward creating a land corridor extending from Syria’s Qalamoun to the Mediterranean, giving ISIS access to the sea it lacks in Syria and Iraq.


Only two weeks after Qahwaji’s foreboding comments, the Lebanese army arrested Ahmad Salim Mikati—who they called a top ISIS commander—in a dawn raid in north Lebanon’s Donniyeh. Mikati had been planning to seize a number of Akkar towns in parallel to a Tripoli offensive lead by Islamist militant commanders Shadi al-Mawlawi and Osama Mansour, according to Lebanon’s state news agency. Following Mikati’s arrest, Mansour and Mawlawi launched attacks on the Lebanese army in Tripoli, while militants in Bahnin north of the port city ambushed an army convoy.


The fighting in Tripoli ended Monday morning when LAF troops secured the battled-ravage Sunni quarter of Bab al-Tebbaneh following mediation efforts conducted by the Mufti of Tripoi and the Association of Muslim Scholars, according to Nabil Rahim, a member of the latter group. The LAF announced that it “raided the last stronghold for terrorists in Bab al-Tebbaneh and arrested a number of militants,” but Mawlawi and Mansour both remained on the run, raising the specter of future fighting.


Rahim told NOW that the clashes were related to the Syrian conflict. Mawlawi and Mansour, he explained, publicly announced that they belong to the Al-Nusra Front. However he added, the clashes between the Islamists and the Lebanese Army in Tripoli should not be considered a serious bid to seize control over Tripoli and Akkar. Despite the escalation of the fight, and the destruction it caused, the militants did not have the capabilities to conduct an operation of that sort, the Sheikh added.


Mosbah al-Ahdab, a former MP and influential Tripoli politician, presented a bleak outlook on the situation in his city. He told NOW that Syrian regime security agencies over the years have infiltrated extremist groups in the city. Most of these Sunni extremist groups do not know that through their attacks on the Lebanese army, they are serving regime interests, Ahdab added.


Like the previous rounds of fighting in Tripoli, added Ahdab, we don’t know the exact circumstances igniting or ending the clashes, and there’s no knowing if they will reoccur.


“We need a definite solution,” he stressed, “and while everybody is pointing to a military one, I believe that, on the contrary, a political one [is needed].”


“The government needs to figure out its stance regarding the crisis in Syria. They need to have a policy towards the fighting in Syria. They need to find a way to stop Hezbollah from utilizing state institutions to support its fight in Syria.”

LAF troops secure a position in Tripoli. (AFP/Ghassan Sweidan)

If Lebanon agrees to coordinate [with Syria on anti-terror efforts] the regime will perceive this as US recognition of it being a legitimate partner in the fight against terror.