TRIPOLI/BEIRUT: A white banner now hangs off the small metal fence surrounding the circle of land where a statue of Abdul-Hamid Karami once stood in the middle of Tripoli’s Nour Square.
“May the revolution in Iraq succeed,” the banner reads, a reference to the recent land-grab by the radical Sunni group ISIS that has destabilized the country at an alarming speed.
Despite their brutal conservative rule in Syria and reports of mass executions of Iraqi soldiers, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or simply ISIS, succeeded in their attack due to help from frustrated Sunni tribes and former members of Iraq’s Baath Party. The development has left many worried that their success could be replicated in neighboring countries, such as in Lebanon where parts of the country’s significant Sunni population has long shown frustration over Shiite party Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria.
Yet despite this resentment, analysts and Sunni political and religious figures insist ISIS has no presence among Lebanese and will not find a major support base here.
On Bab al-Tabbaneh’s Syria Street, the dividing line over which Sunni and Alawite fighters exchanged constant gunfire until the implementation of a security plan in April, Sheikh Khaled Tabbouch explained that Lebanon’s Sunnis, who made up 27 percent of the population before the start of the Syrian crisis, would not warm to the idea of ISIS.
“People are against the transgressions of violence [committed by ISIS] and they are with the moderates,” Tabbouch said from his seat in front of the Khaled bin Walid Mosque, where he works as the imam.
“Lebanese Sunnis are moderate, and most see radical Islamists as trouble,” agreed Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.
“The fact that ISIS militants seek refuge in hotels means they don’t have anybody in the Sunni community to shelter them,” he added, a reference to a number of suicide bombers who are reported to have booked rooms in establishments before operations in the past. Recent raids on hotels in Beirut have not so far found anyone connected to ISIS.
But although those who spoke to The Daily Star were dismissive of ISIS, many added that the Sunni community felt the law was not being fairly applied to them and that they were being oppressed, similar complaints to those that laid the groundwork for the current Iraq crisis.
“Nobody is with ISIS,” said Mohammad Tarek al-Sammak, a mukhtar in Beirut’s Mazraa neighborhood. “We are against them 100 percent – but when you are feeling oppressed, cats become tigers.”
Many in the Lebanese Sunni community also expressed disdain toward Hezbollah for its powerful position in the region as a result of its decisive involvement in the Syrian civil war, a factor that has pushed some in the city to openly sympathize with ISIS’ anti-Shiite stance.
At a rally Tuesday in Tripoli’s Qibbeh neighborhood, at least one black ISIS flag – bearing white writing in a distinctive font – could be seen, as well as a sign referencing ISIS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Addressing around 300 people gathered to show solidarity with jailed locals, Sheikh Salem al-Rafei, surrounded by other prominent Salafist figures from Tripoli, delivered a rousing sermon to chants of “The people want an Islamic state!”
One of those in attendance, 40-year-old Ahmad Basha, insisted that despite the presence of symbols associated with ISIS, none of the attendees belonged to the group.
“We use [these] flags because it makes our enemies mad,” he said, meaning Hezbollah. “If it makes them angry and riles them up, I will make a flag as big as a building because that’s all I have. I have no weapons or political background or strength.”
But he admitted he would join them in a heartbeat if they joined in the attack on his “enemies.”
“If they [ISIS] come here and battle Hezbollah, we will protect them and put them in our hearts.”
Although in the minority, Basha represents an increasingly frustrated portion of the Sunni population that could provide willing recruits if ISIS did make a move in the country.
For the moment, however, experts refute the idea that ISIS may gain a foothold in the country.
“There’s no ISIS in Lebanon,” said Ibrahim al-Saleh, director of Muntada Tarablos, a center of political and strategic analysis in Tripoli. “What happened in Iraq was complicated ... Lebanon is different.”