TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Deceit, ambiguity and shifting allegiances are epithets of internecine fighting. The recurrent clashes in the vastly underprivileged neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh in the north Lebanon city of Tripoli are no exception.
Theories abound regarding the nature of the conflict in Tripoli – from a power struggle between rival Lebanese intelligence apparatuses to purely sectarian hostility – but they all seem to be missing a key piece of the puzzle.
Hezbollah and supporters of Prime Minister Najib Mikati in the city are arming and financing groups that are taking an active part in clashes with the pro-Bashar Assad fighters from Jabal Mohsen, residents, fighters and security sources told The Daily Star.
While some say this shows that Hezbollah wants the situation in north Lebanon to ignite in a bid to shift the pressure away from the embattled Assad, others say the sectarian rift in the city overshadows any political alliances.
Tensions between the Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh and the majority Alawite Jabal Mohsen date back to the 1970s, and much blood has since been spilled with no reconciliation taking place. Intense clashes renewed between the two neighborhoods in mid-May, claiming the lives of scores of people.
The fighting, the heaviest in recent years, has raised fears that the 15-month unrest in Syria has spilled into Lebanon.
Abdul-Latif Saleh, the spokesman for Jabal Mohsen’s Arab Democratic Party, bluntly accuses groups in Bab al-Tabbaneh ordinarily affiliated with his party’s major ally Hezbollah of turning against the ADP.
He says those groups are fighting alongside Bab al-Tabbaneh gunmen.
“It’s an honor for us to be allies with Hezbollah,” adds Saleh. “But they should know that their people in Bab al-Tabbaneh have gone sectarian and turned against them.”
Saleh is also bitter at what he dubs the “negligent behavior” recently displayed by Hezbollah. “Our shops were burned and they didn’t even condemn it,” he said, in reference to the wave of attacks this week on Alawite businesses in the area.
Saleh adds that Mikati and former Prime Minister Omar Karami, both Hezbollah allies, also did not issue condemnations. “We are terribly upset.”
Asked whether his anger stemmed from the fact that Hezbollah had not so far assisted the ADP in the clasheswith Bab al-Tabbaneh, Saleh is categorical. “We don’t need them,” he says. “We’re able to manage brilliantly on our own.”
A fighter from Bab al-Tabbaneh, who wished to remain anonymous, argues that no one in Bab al-Tabbaneh “dares to side with Jabal Mohsen.”
“Anyone in Bab al-Tabbaneh who has arms and does not take part in the fighting [against Jabal Mohsen] is scorned,” he says.
Several photos of Khodr al-Jalkh, a Sunni who fought alongside the ADP and was killed in the fighting in May, are plastered across Bab al-Tabbaneh’s streets. The photos bear the inscription: “This is the fate of every traitor.”
The Bab al-Tabbaneh fighter says the groups Saleh refers to have “strictly financial ties” with Hezbollah. “They take money and weapons from them,” he says.
“They shift alliances according to their interests,” the bearded man continues. “They are fighting with us against Jabal Mohsen.”
Mahmoud al-Aswad, the leader of one of the groups in Bab al-Tabbaneh believed to be affiliated with Hezbollah, blames the clashes on the Future Movement led by Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Imad al-Rez is another leader of a Bab al-Tabbaneh armed squad said to have ties to Mikati’s Azm Association.
Mikati has strongly denied any links to armed factions in Tripoli.
Sitting in his smoke shop in Bab al-Tabbaneh, Aswad, who spent 12 years in Syrian prisons, makes it clear early on that he is a staunch supporter of resistance against Israel and against its agents in Lebanon. “I support Hezbollah as a [resistance group],” he says. “But I will not back the party when they point their gun at me.”
Indeed, talk of guns and armament in Jabal Mohsen and Babal-Tabbaneh will likely engender more confusion.
While the ADP is open about its weapons supplier, the situation in Jabal Mohsen is even more complicated.
“May God protect the Syrian regime,” Saleh says in response to a question about the source of the ADP’s arms, and accuses Saudi Arabia and Qatar of arming his rivals.
Aswad, for his part, says it is clear to everyone that Syria and Hezbollah provide the ADP with supplies of weapons, yet he adds that there are “a hundred people” arming the Bab al-Tabbaneh fighters.
He claims that two Future Movement MPs are among those who “channel the weapons to Bab al-Tabbaneh.”
Saleh adds that although the Lebanese Army seized in April a Sierra Leone-registered ship and confiscated a large consignment of arms and ammunition it was carrying to rebels in Syria, “five ships loaded with arms made their way to Syria before the last one was busted.”
Meanwhile, veteran Bab al-Tabbaneh fighter Walid al-Zoabi says all the weapons used in the fighting between the two Tripoli neighborhoods come from “Hezbollah warehouses.”
He maintains that all the weapons in Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh bore serial numbers that prove they were manufactured in Iran.
“We get them through several mediators,” he explains. “We’re sold the box of bullets for LL50,000 ($33) but Jabal Mohsen gets special treatment, and is sold the box for LL5,000.”
Saleh is skeptical. “If the Bab al-Tabbaneh people are getting their arms from Hezbollah and Iran then we are getting ours from the Future Movement,” he quips.
Yet despite pronounced sectarian feelings and heavy armament, the Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh foes agree that the Lebanese Army is the only guarantor of security and stability in the area. “We are comforted by their presence,” says Zoabi.
Saleh calls on the military to be “stricter in imposing law and order.”
“The army needs to tighten its grip,” he adds. “We need radical solutions.”
But the enigmatic Aswad offers a less flowery reading of the situation in the restive neighborhoods.
Although he denies the participation of members from the Free Syrian Army in the Tripoli warfare, Aswad says events in Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh aim at ousting the Lebanese Army from north Lebanon, so that it can turn into a safe haven for the FSA.
“Do you think the area can accommodate all those numbers?” he asks. “We are going to become poorer and hungrier.”