Thursday, December 5, 2013

In Tripoli, a conflict exploited by all

We often hear that the fighting in Tripoli is a consequence of the city’s neglect by the state. Perhaps that’s part of it, but the current dynamics in northern Lebanon are being driven by other factors which make relative that stock accusation.

Earlier this week, the Lebanese Army began implementing a security plan in Tripoli after yet another round of fighting in which several civilians, notably a 12-year-old boy, were killed. The city has functioned in a separate dimension for years, torn apart by sporadic battles while the rest of Lebanon carries on more or less normally.

The story of Tripoli is, first of all, a story related to Syria. For decades during the Syrian military presence in Lebanon, the city remained under the watchful eye of Syria’s intelligence services. A reservoir of Sunni youths, it was located too close to the Syrian cities of Hama and Homs to be readily ignored by an Alawite-led Syrian regime conscious of the vulnerabilities inherent in minority rule.

Tripoli is also where the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat returned to after his expulsion from Beirut in 1982. The Syrians, then seeking to extend their control over the Palestinian factions, considered his presence a challenge, largely political but also to an extent sectarian. They bombed the city in 1983, forcing Arafat to leave Lebanon for a second time.

In 1986, Damascus’ containment of the Sunnis took a new turn when the Syrian army entered Bab al-Tabbaneh and killed or arrested hundreds of young men, some say thousands, creating the resentment that exists to this day between the quarter and the predominantly Alawite Jabal Mohsen. A recurring theme has been Syria’s desire to ensure that Tripoli does not pose a threat to the Assad dictatorship. The outbreak of violence in the city after the start of the Syrian conflict has helped keep its youths occupied, rather than fighting in Syria, even as the city has been used as a political mailbox to Syria’s Lebanese foes.

In parallel, there have been other calculations unrelated to the specifics of the Tripoli conflict. There is, first, the credibility of the Army, at a time when the Army commander, Jean Kahwagi, is a leading contender for the presidency. For the armed forces to stand by while the killing continues is not something that Kahwagi can afford politically.

It is no surprise that criticism of the government’s policy in Tripoli has come from the Aounists, who opposed an extension of the Army commander’s term. They know that what happens in the city will have a bearing on Kahwagi’s chances of being elected next year – with Michel Aoun still hoping to become president despite his advanced age.

Beyond electoral politics, Kahwagi also realizes that a substantial portion of his troops hail from the north, particularly from Akkar. There have been disturbing sectarian killings in Tripoli and Akkar lately, and if this spins out of control, the consequences could affect the Army, undermining its effectiveness in the north. Given that the Army has already been accused by many Sunnis of favoring Hezbollah, this is not a situation the military leadership can ignore or allow to deteriorate.

At the same time, Kahwagi does not want Tripoli to become a trap for his men. There are many today who have a stake in discrediting the Army commander, and he will steer clear of any moves that might draw the military into the treacherous byways of Tripoli’s politics. Nor does he want the Army to be portrayed as an enemy of the city, which some local Salafist leaders appear keen to do, as they did in Sidon.

Two leading Sunni figures are also fighting it out politically in Tripoli, while others are watching intently from the sidelines. They are the caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, and the former head of the Internal Security Forces, Ashraf Rifi. It is no secret that Rifi has political ambitions, and both men are competing for influence in the city. Last weekend, Rifi tried to outmaneuver Mikati by saying he should stop performing his duties in protest against the fighting. Coming at a time when the government was being accused by the city’s inhabitants of not doing enough for them, that advice was the equivalent of asking Mikati to commit political suicide.

Several years ago, while visiting Tripoli after a round of fighting, I met several men in Bab al-Tabbaneh who pointed out that weapons used in the fighting with Jabal Mohsen were being sold in their quarter by an arms dealer close to the former prime minister Omar Karami. This seemed odd, given that Karami was officially an ally of the Alawite Arab Democratic Party, at whom the men in Bab al-Tabbaneh had been firing.

The version of events gained some credibility when Rifaat Eid, the son of Ali Eid, who heads the Alawite Arab Democratic Party, told me, “The last round of fighting started when the men of an opposition politician fired a rocket-propelled grenade at us.” He didn’t mention Karami by name, but from the context and what we had heard earlier, it was obvious that he was referring to the former prime minister.

The incident showed that events in Tripoli were often propelled not by national or regional developments, but by parochial calculations. Karami may have been part of the opposition to March 14 at the time, but he needed to reinforce his sectarian bona fides, even if it meant firing at his purported Alawite allies. By the same token, many other politicians or security figures today have a stake in exploiting what goes on in Tripoli, or at least ensuring that they will not lose out if the situation turns to their disadvantage.

Most of Tripoli’s inhabitants know this, which is precisely why they have so little hope of seeing a definitive end to combat in their city. They expect, and are probably right in expecting, that the cynical shadow play will continue with no decisive outcome. Until the conflict in Syria ends, and perhaps even afterward, Tripoli will continue to suffer the repercussions of the wars of others.

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