BEIRUT: While fighters in Tripoli’s Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood are gaining the upper hand in pitched battles against the mainly Alawite district of Jabal Mohsen, it remains unlikely that they would launch a decisive push against their foes for the time being, experts said Friday.Tit-for-tat clashes, however, will drag on as tension between the two restive neighborhoods is directly tied to the unrest in Syria, where the conflict has taken a bloody sectarian turn pitting Sunnis against Alawites.
“What is happening in Tripoli now is street fighting that has not developed into full-scale warfare,” a senior security source told The Daily Star. “There are red lines that cannot be crossed. I doubt that the fighters of Bab al-Tabbaneh will consider storming Jabal Mohsen because it would be highly costly to all the sides.”
The source explained that while the fighters of Bab al-Tabbaneh, who outnumber those of Jabal Mohsen and are better armed, have come up with a strategy to invade Jabal Mohsen, their plan cannot be put into practice.
“It’s not feasible on both the logistical and the political levels,” the source said. “Nobody will give cover to sectarian or racial attacks, especially against a minority like the Alawites.”
Fighting renewed in Lebanon’s second largest city Friday between supporters and opponents of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, shattering the precarious cease-fire brokered Wednesday and forcing the Army to retreat.
The rivalry between Bab al-Tabbaneh and the neighboring district of Jabal Mohsen is a historical one and dates back to the days of the 1975-90 Civil War. But the two neighborhoods have witnessed fierce battles that have claimed dozens of lives in the past year.
Strategic analyst Elias Hanna argued that the conflict between the two districts had reached its “peak” in the last few days.
The security source described Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh as a “mini-Syria,” adding that Tripoli was where the sharp divisions between Lebanese political groups about events in Syria manifest themselves.
“Pro and anti-Assad groups don’t want to fight in Beirut, for example, where the conflict would turn into one that pits Sunnis and Shiites [against each other], so they are settling scores in Tripoli,” Hanna explained.
“For some reason a Sunni-Alawite encounter is seen as less threatening or dangerous than a Sunni-Shiite one.”
The analyst also maintained that Bab al-Tabbaneh fighters could not carry out an incursion against those in Jabal Mohsen.
“This is tactically impossible,” the retired general said. “You cannot perform an incursion into a location right above you.”
Located on a hill, the neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen, which has a population of 80,000, towers over its arch foe Bab al-Tabbaneh. But the Jabal is surrounded by Sunni neighborhoods on practically all sides and the only safe exit for residents and fighters alike is the region of Majdlaya that connects it to the province of Zghorta, the stronghold of pro-Assad Marada Movement leader MP Suleiman Frangieh.
According to retired army general Amin Hoteit, the presence of the Army in Jabal Mohsen is a guarantee that Bab al-Tabbaneh fighters will not storm the neighboring district and expel the Alawites from Tripoli.
However, Hoteit said “all kinds of pressure” was being exerted on the Army to leave its posts in Jabal Mohsen and on Syria Street, the fault line between the battling neighborhoods.
The security source concurred, adding that the Army was fully capable of terminating violence in Tripoli, yet he added that it lacked the necessary political backing.
“The Army is totally demoralized right now,” the source said. “Politicians want it to maintain law, order and stability on the condition that blood is not spilled, and this is not feasible.”
Earlier this week, groups fighting in Bab al-Tabbaneh voiced unprecedented blatant criticism against the military and accused the Army’s 4th Intervention Regiment of committing a “massacre” by allegedly killing four civilians from the neighborhood.
The security source explained that urban warfare was the most difficult kind of turmoil an army could confront. “An army will have to take decisive action and a lot of blood will be spilled and much destruction will take place.”
Analysts seemed to agree that the clashes in Tripoli would drag on this time and expressed serious fears that the Army would be affected by the longevity of the conflict.
“What is happening is some kind of a war of attrition that will weaken the Army,” said Hanna. “The Army will be occupied by dealing with the small details rather than the big picture.”
Hoteit, for his part, warned of “carnage” in Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh in case the Army decided to abandon the city of Tripoli.
“But I rule out the possibility of the Army leaving the neighborhoods,” he said. “The Army will only be forced to leave if the threat of defections emerges but this is not going to happen, at least for the time being.”