TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Despite the calm that has prevailed over Tripoli lately and the end of the latest round of violence, residents firmly believe another clash is around the corner as the emergence of new fighting groups takes center stage, raising fears of an Army reprisal. Of some concern are dangerous facts uncovered during the latest round of clashes that observers say could plunge the city into further turmoil. At the forefront of new developments are accusations made by several fighter groups in Bab al-Tabbaneh that Army soldiers are atheists. The accusations were followed by attacks targeting Army vehicles that killed two soldiers.
These false claims have rung alarm bells that the security situation in the troubled city has reached critical proportions and is approaching a stage that could lead to dire consequences.
Several field commanders in Bab al-Tabbaneh have observed new unknown groups entering their traditional front lines with rival Jabal Mohsen. The commanders have seen enthusiastic fighters, notably from the group led by Salafist leader Hussam al-Sabbagh, nicknamed Abu al-Hasan, taking part in the clashes.
The commanders have also noticed the introduction of new arms to the fighting, some that have never been used in clashes before, such as 120-82 mortars and rocket propelled grenade launchers such as B7 and B10, as well as locally manufactured explosive devices.
“The targeting of an Army vehicle by a group from Bab al-Tabbaneh is something unacceptable and gives [others] a pretense to retaliate against the local fighting groups of Bab al-Tabbaneh, and this could lead to much strife between them and the Army,” a senior field commander told The Daily Star, referring to separate attacks on military vehicles that killed two soldiers and wounded eight others on Jan. 22.
The field commander voiced concerns that fighters in Tripoli would become scapegoats and sacrificed by politicians in the name of regional and local settlements, especially after former Prime Minister Saad Hariri agreed to participate in a Cabinet with Hezbollah.
The commander could offer no vision of how the security situation could morph in Tripoli in the coming months, save for the possibility of a comprehensive security plan that might see forces enter Bab al-Tabbaneh to confiscate weapons.
“Such a plan might be in the works, especially with information circulating that the security forces have the names of 53 wanted people from Bab al-Tabbaneh and will soon issue arrest warrants for them,” he said, adding that the targeting of Army vehicles in the last clash served as a trigger to issue such warrants. “[The security forces] vowed that it would not go unpunished.”
The commander’s fears were echoed by most local fighting groups in Bab al-Tabbaneh.
The latest round was also marked by the appearance of new fighting groups, such as the Bilal Ben Rabah Brigades, the Oussoud al-Shaarani Brigades and Jalal Dandashi Brigades, a development that evokes the myriad of decentralized rebel groups in Syria.
The introduction of unknown fighting groups, and the response of the security forces to an attack against their presence in Bab al-Tabbaneh, signals the possibility for many local fighters that a crackdown on Islamist groups would soon be underway.
Observers in Tripoli said sheikhs and scholars were mostly to blame for the security situation in the city because their neglect and absence from public affairs had allowed for a more fanatic school of thought to fill the void. Institutional disorder was also to blame, they said, as the overlapping roles of Dar al-Fatwa and the Committee of Muslim Scholars, led by Sheikh Salem Rafei, only served to confuse citizens.
“The relevant authorities should deal with this negligence and deal with this issue from all sides. Here we don’t talk about military solutions, but about the chronic social and economic problems, by establishing development projects similar to those in other Lebanese regions that had similar issues,” secretary of Dar al-Fatwa Sheikh Mohammad Imam told The Daily Star, clarifying the role of his institution. “The big question,” he said, was “why the front lines in Tripoli remained open when all other front lines were eliminated [after the Civil War]?”
“ Tripoli residents are rarely consulted in the happenings of their city and they often don’t know when a round of violence begins and ends. No one knows who orders the start of the violence and what is most pitiful is that the victims ... are often innocent civilians,” he added.
Imam touched on the takfiri practice of accusing enemies of being atheists as a pretense to legitimize and launch attacks.
“It is useful to point out that eliminating the opposite point of view is against the instructions of the holy Quran, which calls for dialogue and negotiating with people using moderation,” he said.