lebanon fears Syria violence will spread across border

Tuesday , February 14, 2012 - 2:24 PM

David Enders

TRIPOLI, Lebanon -- In this northern Lebanese city, two adjoining neighborhoods reflect the growing concern that the violence raging in Syria could soon spill into Lebanon, whose own sectarian civil war captivated the world a generation ago.

On the one side are the men of Bab al-Tabbaneh, a Sunni Muslim area that openly embraces the Free Syrian Army, the band of military defectors that has taken up arms against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

On the other are the men of Jebel Mohsen, an enclave that is predominantly Alawite, the Shiite Muslim sect to which Assad and much of his inner circle belong.

For two days last week, fighting shook the two neighborhoods, leaving three civilians dead and two dozen wounded, including members of the Lebanese army, which was deployed Sunday to separate the antagonists. But while calm has been restored, tensions remain high, and neither side expects the peace to hold.

"We've broken holes in walls to allow people to pass safely from one building to the next," a Sunni fighter in Bab al-Tabbaneh told a visiting reporter over the weekend.

The atmosphere remained defiant in Jebel Mohsen a few hours later. Fighters crowded around a reporter, chanting, "With our blood, our soul, we fight for you, Bashar!" Photos of Assad dotted the street.

This is not the first round of fighting between the neighborhoods, whose conflict dates at least to the Syrian army's invasion of Lebanon in 1976 during the long Lebanese civil war, which claimed as many as 200,000 lives from 1975 to 1990.

Militiamen and local leaders in Bab al-Tabbaneh said the violence stretches back to a massacre of hundreds in the neighborhood in the 1980s, when the Syrian military occupied Lebanon.



"Everyone here has someone who was killed," said one militiaman, who identified himself only as "Tiger."

Their lingering anger underscores the fragility of what passes for stability here after the civil war that pitted Muslim against Christian and Shiite against Sunni. In Bab al-Tabbaneh, the complexity of the loyalties is on display. There are photos of deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and expressions of support for Hamas, the Sunni fundamentalist political party that runs the Gaza Strip and that the United States has declared a terrorist organization.

"Hezbollah is the devil," said one of the militiamen, referring to the Shiite militia and political party that is now Lebanon's dominant political player and a longtime Assad ally. The militia, which has leveraged more than two decades of armed resistance against Israel into political clout, now finds its relationship to its Syrian patrons more polarizing than perhaps ever before.

"We are honored to support the Free Syrian Army," said another militiaman.

The views of the men in Bab al-Tabbaneh are shared by some members of Lebanon's Parliament.

"The Lebanese army is not doing its part to protect civilians against the pro-Syrians," said Moyeen Murabi, a member of the Lebanese Parliament with the March 14th Coalition, a grouping of political parties named for protests that helped end the Syrian occupation in 2005. "We are afraid this will happen in other areas."

But the army itself is torn between supporters and opponents of Syria and Hezbollah, Murabi said.

"The commanders of the Lebanese army are not confident soldiers will follow orders," he said. "Otherwise, the Lebanese army should take action against any movement from any side that causes death and destroys property."

Murabi predicted that violence would plague Tripoli, and perhaps get worse, as long as the Syrian uprising continues.

"We hope that when the Syrian regime falls, the situation will be better," Murabi said. "The region cannot tolerate this regime anymore, or this mentality."

But obviously not everyone in Lebanon shares that sentiment.

Rifaat Eid, a member of Parliament from the Arab Socialist Party, which is allied with Hezbollah, defended the militiamen from Jebel Mohsen, saying they had not been the aggressors in the fighting. He blamed the fighting on Sunni fundamentalists and said the Jebel Mohsen militiamen did not fight -- an improbable claim.

He agreed, however, that the violence was related to the Syrian uprising, and he echoed the rhetoric of Assad, claiming that terrorist groups have been attacking the Syrian government.

The fighting in Tripoli, he said, "started 10 days ago, when the Syrian army attacked the terrorists in Homs," Eid said, referring to the Syrian city that has been a flashpoint of the uprising and has been bombarded heavily by the Syrian army for the last week. "We knew that when the Syrian army took Homs back from the terrorists, March 14 would do something in Tripoli."

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(Enders is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)

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