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SUNDAY, 20 APR 2014
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Akkar watches and waits for civil strife
From Dababieh, Lebanon, in May last year, residents could see Syrian army tents across the border in Oyoun.
From Dababieh, Lebanon, in May last year, residents could see Syrian army tents across the border in Oyoun.
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أIREH/HISEH, Lebanon: Elie Mourani, a resident of a border village in Akkar, looks anxiously at the Syrian territory nearby, wondering whether future crossfire will affect the fate of his new red-roofed home, built atop his family residence because of their modest means.

Mourani is from the Christian village of Dababieh, which lies next to Kawashira, a name that periodically appears in the news as a transit point for weapons and fighters entering Syria and as a target of shelling from across the border.

Kawashira happens to be a majority Turkmen village, where the residents are fluent in Turkish.

Even inter-Christian rivalry has played a part in the region’s history; The border point of Arida in Akkar was named after Maronite Patriarch Antoine Arida, who rejected the idea of including parts of nearby Syria in modern Lebanon. The Orthodox Christians there, he felt, would further reduce the clout of the Maronite community.

But today, tensions between Sunnis and Alawites are prevalent in the mosaic that is Akkar, and have residents wondering whether they will be dragged into the bloody war in Syria.

“We don’t support the [Syrian] regime, but as Christians, we are frightened, because there are extremist Salafi groups, which are out of control,” Mourani said.

“All night long we hear the convoys of fighters and weapons being transported in four-wheel drives. ... We hear the sound of artillery as if it’s inside our own houses.”

Amid the daily worries and tensions, Mourani, just like his family and neighbors, refuses to leave his home despite the lack of job prospects and sluggish business activity.

The nearby village of Hiseh is considered the “capital” of the string of 14 Alawite villages in the Akkar plain, just as the sprawling Wadi Khaled area is seen as a “base” for Syrian rebels.

Sheikh Ali Qaddour, on behalf of Alawite community leaders, said the sect’s members weren’t worried about conflict with the residents of nearby Sunni villages. However, he expressed fears about the “outsiders,” whether part of the “so-called Free Syrian Army or the Nusra Front,” who he said numbered in the thousands.

“I’m not afraid of our neighbors, but of the borders, which are completely porous. Fighters shouldn’t be able to move back and forth with ease between Lebanon and Syria,” he said.

I’ve undertaken several initiatives to deal with some petty disputes that have arisen with our Sunni brethren. The proof [of this] is that we’ve never had any conflicts between Sunnis and Alawites in Akkar in our history.”

Asked if he feared the violence between the two communities in Tripoli would spread north to Akkar, Qaddour said: “Coexistence is a safety valve for all citizens in Akkar – but if the Nusra Front and the FSA have a role [in the Syria crisis], it’s natural that we ask the security agencies and the Lebanese Army to protect us.”

In the Sunni-majority town of Bireh, Sheikh Alaa Abdel-Wahed is intimately familiar with the repercussions of the Syria crisis. His brother, Sheikh Ahmad, was one of two people killed when the Army opened fire at their car at a checkpoint in May of last year, enraging members of the Sunni community.

“We support the Syrian uprising, and we’re securing aid for Syrians, but that doesn’t mean I’ve taken up arms, because this isn’t part of our nature or our traditions,” Abdel-Wahed said.

“We want to see the tyrant [Syrian President] Bashar Assad fall, and we call on Alawites to not link their future to his. Despite everything that’s happened in the past, we won’t be dragged into sectarian fighting with our Alawite neighbors.”

To emphasize his point, Abdel-Wahed said that in the wake of his brother’s murder, he issued no accusations over who exactly was responsible, with no incidents of revenge.

“But it’s not acceptable for anyone to ask us to stop supporting the Syrian uprising, in all forms,” he added.

While most people cite their desire to see coexistence remain intact, the reality on the ground reveals the tension that festers under the surface.

Privately, supporters of the Syrian uprising complain about the mukhabarat-like role Alawites play as well as partisans of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. In Lebanese Alawites homes, meanwhile, there are obvious displays of support for Damascus, such as the ever-present photos of Assad and his father, the late Hafez.

A supporter of the Syrian regime who asked to remain anonymous complained the Salafists “feel completely comfortable when it comes to moving from Akkar to Syria, since this qada is a base of popular support for the Syrian uprising. The overwhelming majority of Sunnis support the fall of the regime.

“There are Alawite villages ... that don’t hide their support for Damascus, and they support the Arab Democratic Party, headed by Ali Eid,” he said.

No one is enthusiastic about giving a direct answer to questions about the likelihood of civil strife; instead, there are campaigns whispered by both sides.

Those who support the uprising hint they will confront the Syrian army if it decides to engage in cross-border offensives. Supporters of Assad say the Nusra Front has established military training camps in farms, from the towns of Abdeh to Arida, and specifically in the village of Sheikh Ayyash, Mashta Hassan and Masta Hammoud, although the reports are impossible to verify.

Some leading figures in Akkar say the periodic closures of roads by people upset with the course of events in Syria are only a prelude to seeing the Sunni-Alawite strife of Tripoli spread to Akkar. The only common denominator is the view that nothing will be able to prevent a sudden eruption of violence, given that the Lebanese state has remained unable to enforce its authority in the region.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 27, 2013, on page 2.
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