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Lebanon News

Syrian rebels stay out of Tripoli fight

Syrian refugees protest in front of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in Tripoli, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. (The Daily Star/Antoine Amrieh)

BEIRUT: Speaking over the crackle of gunfire in a small shop in Tripoli, Amin Mando, a senior Syrian opposition coordinator in the city, explains how his group of refugees and dissidents won’t be dragged into a conflict in Lebanon’s north.

Syrians cannot and will not fight in the violent and escalating clashes between the largely Alawite pro-Syrian regime neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen and the Sunni area of Bab al-Tabbaneh that supports the opposition, Mando says. Sources say the rebel Free Syrian Army leadership opposes the idea, as do the Lebanese leaders and commanders in charge in Tripoli.

The Lebanese and Syrians who back the Syrian revolution are instead focusing their efforts in Syria. Mando says hundreds of anti-regime fighters are pouring across the border to battle Hezbollah and the Syrian army.

A recent call to jihad by radical Sunni preachers in the city spurred an influx of fighters to Syria.

The battle for Qusair, in which Hezbollah fighters took part, was one of the strongest rallying calls to date for supporters of the Syrian opposition in the city who are angered by the Lebanese party’s intervention.

Scores of Sunni Lebanese have rallied to the besieged town of Qusair, Mando says, and countless numbers of Syrian men have been pushed from their life as refugees in Lebanon to return to Syria to fight.

“Leaders from the Syrian opposition decided they don’t approve of fighting here,” Mando said. “Our battle is inside Syria.”

He said his information about gunmen fighting in Qusair comes from Lebanese leaders in the town and an FSA contact in Syria.

Mando runs operations for the Tripoli Local Coordinating Committee from two small fabric shops in a neighborhood that borders the Lebanese city’s battle lines. He mostly helps the massive numbers of refugees in Lebanon and organizes demonstrations.

Local shops were mostly closed Wednesday, and Mando’s offices were some of the only ones open, despite a nearby sign that read “Warning, sniper.”

Despite persistent rumors of Syrians fighting in Tripoli’s clashes, Mando and other rebel figures in the city insisted this wasn’t true.

“There are none right now; if there were Syrian people fighting I would tell you because I would be proud,” he said with a smile.

Clashes in Tripoli began over the weekend around the time Hezbollah and the Syrian army launched their offensive against the strategic town of Qusair which borders Lebanon.

The clashes in Tripoli have so far claimed the lives of 13 people and wounded more than 100.

The fighting has been unusually violent for the two neighborhoods whose rivalry spans decades.

Heavier munitions such as mortars are being used in the fighting and the Army has been targeted by gunfire from the Bab al-Tabbaneh area. Several soldiers have been killed in the clashes, and there were reports of plans for an unprecedented incursion by Sunni Islamist fighters into Jabal Mohsen.

The military has increased its troop presence massively but is still looking for ways to clamp down on the situation after cease-fire negotiations failed Wednesday afternoon.

Tripoli is a major bastion of support for the Syrian uprising. Flags can be seen and songs heard in support of the rebels in downtown areas of the city, while posters pledge support for different Syrian opposition groups.

But despite the large numbers of rebel supporters in Tripoli, the Syrian regime still has significant influence in some areas, and opposition figures have been harassed and kidnapped.

Hezbollah’s recent military engagement in Syria and the looming threat of regional war has raised concerns that Tripoli could be pulled into a larger sectarian conflict that is creeping across the border into Lebanon.

A Syrian rebel supporter who goes by the name Abu Tarek echoed Mando’s sentiment about the city. He said people were angry at the regime and what was happening in Syria – his wife’s home was shot at two months ago – but they were taking their anger out in Syria, not Lebanon.

“We didn’t go into Tabbaneh, this is a Lebanese issue,” said Abu Tarek, who is from Hama.

He said that even if the rebels wanted to engage in the fighting in Lebanon, they didn’t have the means to.

His opposition group is in disarray, he said, without a clear leadership in Lebanon and without the ability to afford the basic costs of living.

“They can’t pay the rent ,and they can’t buy guns,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 23, 2013, on page 3.

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