TRIPOLI, Lebanon: In the main square of the mostly Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen in Tripoli, insignia symbolizing allegiance to Syrian President Bashar Assad have vanished.
In its place is but one imposing portrait of Arab Democratic Party politburo chief Rifaat Eid, who, along with his father and party founder Ali Eid, reportedly fled the country two weeks ago to avoid criminal charges, leaving their followers leaderless and exposed. Security sources told The Daily Star that both party figures were in Syria, confirming that Rifaat checked into the Sheraton Hotel in Damascus. Rumors of their departure surfaced two weeks ago, days before a government-backed security plan was slated for implementation in the area and its rival, the majority Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh. Both neighborhoods have engaged in 20 rounds of clashes since May 2008. The violence intensified following the start of Syria’s civil war in March 2011.
Security forces have detained at least 43 suspects accused of involvement in the Tripoli clashes as part of the plan, under which around 1,800 Army and security forces have been deployed.
Maya’s husband, who bears the nom du guerre Ahmad al-Hurr, is Rifaat Eid’s bodyguard and on the Army’s wanted list. He, along with other fighters and field commanders in the area, fled before the military raids to an undisclosed area to avoid arrest. Militia leaders in Bab al-Tabbaneh did the same, one prominent sheikh told The Daily Star, and are believed to be hiding in Wadi Khaled.
“I don’t know where he is, but I know he is alright,” Maya says, sitting in her living room, sparsely decorated save for photographs of her three young children. Prior to marrying Hurr, Maya was married to Youssef Traboulsi, an ADP fighter who died in the 2008 clashes.
Her house was raided four times in the past three days, she says, rising to attend to her youngest child, who was crying in the next room. Usually soldiers come in the early morning hours, between 2-5 a.m., hoping to catch Hurr unawares.
“They arrested my father-in-law,” she says. “He was just passing by, and they [the Army] asked to see his ID, when they saw he shared the same family name they arrested him.” She speculates the act is a tool to pressure her husband to turn himself in.
“Men who aren’t wanted are being arrested,” she claims. “In the first raid, they [the Army] were polite, but with successive raids they started using violence, they started raiding the houses of people who aren’t wanted, they insult them.”
“They come here and keep asking for someone who isn’t here, so why use violence against us? They aren’t here,” she says indignantly. The Army spokesperson could not be reached by The Daily Star.
For families such as Maya’s, the targets of the raids appear to be indiscriminate and unmerited. All the locals interviewed by The Daily Star said they felt the security plan had unfairly pursued Jabal Mohsen, compared to Bab al-Tabbaneh, and that the departure of their leaders had left them vulnerable to ill-willed outsiders. The Army’s removal of barricades that once protected residents from sniper fire has only worked to exacerbate such anxieties.
“When they were here, it made all the difference,” Maya says.
Several civilians from Jabal Mohsen have been shot by militants from Bab al-Tabbaneh in previous months as they were commuting to and from work.
Residents expressed skepticism that the security plan would usher in a viable reconciliation with Bab al-Tabbaneh, considering that key players to broker such an accord, such as Eid, militia leaders and Sunni figures, including Saad Hariri, would not be party to it. Protests that had turned violent the previous day between the Army and gunmen in Bab al-Tabbaneh served to reinforce these views.
“Reconciliation?” asks Maya, incredulously. “The security plan has changed nothing. Everything will go back to the way it was before.”
Sheikh Assad Assi, the head of the Alawite Islamic Council, concedes that the departure of Rifaat Eid has had a “psychological effect” on Jabal Mohsen’s residents, but that nevertheless the sect would have representation via its spiritual leaders. He expressed fears that the raids were a product of political interests, primarily those of Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi and Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk who are close to the Future Movement.
But Assi says “only time will tell.”
“We think injustice had been inflicted on Jabal Mohsen, because Ali Eid and Rifaat Eid have been forced to flee the country after being accused of terrorism. They are our leaders, and they are being falsely accused,” Assi says.
Last week, Military Prosecutor Saqr Saqr charged Eid and 11 others with belonging to an armed terrorist organization and carrying out terrorist acts in Tripoli. Ali Eid is wanted for allegedly aiding a suspect linked to the twin bombings that targeted two mosques in Tripoli last summer.
Reconciliation between both neighborhoods can only be fostered once its root political causes are addressed, requiring key political players, including the Eids, to come to the dialogue table, Assi says.
The core of the matter is partly political, as clashes escalated with the start of the Syria crisis. In a garage adjacent to Assi’s office building lies a tattered portrait of Assad, his arm raised in salute; a symbolic indication that while the posters had been taken down, Jabal Mohsen’s ties to Syria ran deeper than mere pageantry.
Some residents of Jabal Mohsen interpret the departure of Rifaat Eid as a sacrifice, one he made to avoid a greater conflict that might have ensued had he been arrested. In return, residents say, the security forces should boost measures to ensure their safety.
The neighborhood spans 2.5 square km surrounded by Sunni neighborhoods, which are, besides Bab al-Tabbaneh, Beddawi, Manqoubine, Riva and Bakkar. The arrangement has given rise to a siege mentality, especially because of the area’s links to Assad’s regime.
“We are being killed just for being allies with Syria,” Noureddine Eid, Rifaat’s brother, previously told The Daily Star. “We aren’t helping them, we don’t send money, we aren’t sending fighters, we don’t have the ability to do that ... but we are being attacked anyway.”
Noureddine Eid had kept his youngest daughter from going to school in Tripoli out of fear that she might be kidnapped, he said his brother had done the same. “We are the head of the Alawite community, and we live like this,” he said.
“We are part of a bigger cause,” explains Ali, a local resident. “Because we expressed our support to the Syrian regime.”
Ali lives in Hart al-Jadideh, the portion of Jabal Mohsen immediately overlooking Bab al-Tabbaneh. An Army tank is all that separates both areas now. After the first day of the raids, some residents from Hart al-Jadideh walked down the hill with flowers to reconcile with their neighboring adversaries. According to Ali, the heart-warming sight did not represent the attitude of most Alawites.
“It’s been six years of bloodshed,” he says, still drinking his coffee in the inside corners of buildings, a habit he inherited from living close to the front lines. “Things like that aren’t resolved in a matter of days.”
Still, things are looking up, he says, “At least I can walk down my own street today without fear of bullets.”