Syria Street divides them

Everyone agreed the violence in Tripoli over the weekend was related to the more intense fighting in the Syrian city of Homs. The nature of that relationship, however, depends on whom you ask.
Sunni gunmen in Bab al-Tabbaneh insisted their Alawite neighbors in Jabal Mohsen were dead-set on creating in Lebanon another Baba Amr, a neighborhood in Homs hit hard by a Syrian army offensive against its opponents that has been ongoing for over a week now.
Rifaat Eid, head of the Arab Democratic Party that holds sway in Jabal Mohsen, was equally adamant in a phone conversation with NOW Lebanon that Salafists in Tripoli were trying to create problems with the army here just as “they are in Homs.”

For decades the two neighborhoods, separated by a road named Syria Street, have been at each other’s throats. Indeed, in the early 1970s, late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s brother founded the Arab Democratic Party in Jabal Mohsen. The party’s now-disbanded militia fought hard against Isalmists in neighboring Bab al-Tabbaneh (and other parts of Tripoli) in the early 1980s. Eid’s party still has strong ties to the Assad regime, and whenever fighting between the two neighborhoods flares up (as it frequently does) Syria’s critics in Lebanon are quick to claim the Alawites instigated it on orders from Damascus.

Tensions have been high between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh since protests against Bashar al-Assad began last March. There have been several demonstrations for (Jabal Mohsen) and against (Bab al-Tabbaneh) Assad in the neighborhoods since then. In June, street fighting also broke out between them and left seven dead.

The two sides had wildly differing accounts of the most recent violence. Some 15 Bab al-Tabbaneh residents—all of whom refused to provide their real names—took NOW Lebanon reporters into a garage in the neighborhood to explain their side of the story.

It started on Friday, they said. People gathered in Tripoli’s Nour Square to demonstrate in solidarity with the Syrian uprising. They then marched to Bab al-Tabbaneh. When they arrived, Energa grenades rained down from Jabal Mohsen, an adjacent neighborhood at a slightly higher altitude. Residents responded by grabbing their guns, and the shooting continued more or less without halt until late Saturday afternoon.   

Eid completely disagreed. In fact, he said, people from Jabal Mohsen barely even fought.

“We’re not shooting at all,” he said. “The Salafists are shooting at the army, and the army is shooting at the Salafists.”

“All that’s happening now is because of what’s happening in Homs. The Syrian army is killing Salafists in Homs,” he said, offering a variant of the Syrian president’s claim that problems in Syria are the workings of “armed terrorist gangs.” Eid argued that Salafists in Lebanon are responding and that they are actually keen to fight the Lebanese army.

He did admit that Jabal Mohsen residents “in some situations” fired back at Bab al-Tabbaneh, “but directly we stopped them. When we hear [people in Jabal Mohsen shooting], immediately we go and put our hands on them.”

NOW Lebanon was not able to get close enough to the dividing line of Syria Street to confirm. However, while sitting with the fighters in Bab al-Tabbaneh, one man who was on his mobile interrupted the interview to put the call on speaker phone.

“The army’s shooting at us,” the voice on the other end said. People in the room said the man who called was fighting on the front line. The men were suspicious as to why the army had not yet intervened to stop the fighting. They denied firing at the army.

They also rejected Eid’s claim they were all Salafists. Of the 40 or so men NOW Lebanon saw holding guns in Bab al-Tabbaneh, fewer than half had the full beards and shaved moustaches typically worn by Salafists.

One man joked, pointing to another, “He looks like a Salafist, but he goes out to Gemmazye,” a Beirut neighborhood packed with bars.

A clean-shaven fighter NOW Lebanon ran into when approaching Bab al-Tabbaneh who gave his name as Abu Youssef said Eid’s party is accusing Sunnis of smuggling weapons into Syria.

“Are you?” NOW asked.

“If I could smuggle weapons and go blow myself up there I would,” he said. “But we’re not.”