In the context of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990, the country often appears on the brink of war. Likewise, many are wondering if the shared memory of that war will suffice in keeping sectarian rifts in check this time around. The divides are surely escalating, and beyond the shared albeit powerful memory of the war, it remains questionable whether Lebanese factions have the will and ability to counter the instability emanating from Iraq and Syria.
With that in mind, the important northern city of Tripoli will be an important test. The city has remained volatile for years. Sectarian clashes have been routine, often lasting for days. Dozens can be killed, as sides are well-armed and not afraid to use them. Militias walk the streets, with the army mainly serving as an intervening force. Since the spring, however, violence has decreased thanks to a government security plan meant to end the routine bouts of violence between Sunni fighters in the Bab al-Tabbeneh neighborhood and their historical rivals in the Jabal Mohsen district. Jabal Mohsen is largely inhabited by Alawites, thus connecting them with the Alawite-led Syrian regime in Damascus. The Sunnis on the other hand are the force behind the rebellion in neighboring. In Tripoli, Sunnis are deeply hostile to the Damascus regime. Despite the connection to Syria, fighting between the two neighborhoods is historical and has largely remained localized. Localization was likely assisted by sheer numbers; Alawites are a minority and do not have many natural allies in Lebanon. Headlines of dozens of dead fighters and civilians in Tripoli did not spawn similar bloodletting elsewhere in Lebanon, including in Beirut.
But there are concerns that things could change; expanding the significance of Tripoli. In particular, there are reports that Sunni jihadists in Tripoli may seek to set up safe zones for their operations in and around the city for the declared purpose of supporting operations in Syria. They cite Shiite Hezbollah’s use of such zones in the south, Bekaa Valley, and in Beirut. However, the army and Hezbollah are worried these zones will be used against them inside Lebanon. Both sides likely perceive that Sunnis in Tripoli will eventually escalate attacks, possibly with increased focus on the army instead of the Alawites. Therefore and amidst escalating tensions involving state security forces and Hezbollah with the country’s Sunnis, this would be a hard pill to swallow.
Sunni jihadist violence is escalating in Lebanon’s east, mainly targeting the army and Hezbollah. Both players have responded by bolstering their forces in the Bekaa Valley, in anticipation of further attacks. Those attacks are likely intended to increase sectarian tensions in Lebanon, erode Sunni support for the country’s army, bleed Hezbollah, force its withdrawal from Syria, and gain more holdings on the Lebanese side of the border to support operations in Syria. Moreover, the jihadists have also recently accelerated operations in Lebanon’s north, in the Akkar region. This has led to an increasing number of security incidents, along with counter militancy efforts by the government. The region’s proximity to Tripoli has also increased concerns of an expansion of jihadist violence in that city. Additionally, there are reports that Lebanese authorities, along with Hezbollah, are concerned of a plan to target the country’s Shiites in multiple locales during the mourning period of Ashura next week. Furthermore, several Lebanese soldiers, in high-profile cases, have defected in recent weeks to join the Sunni jihadists. While officials have downplayed the defections, it nonetheless underscores a growing concern. Will sectarian tensions push more Lebanese Sunnis to abandon the current state structure and support jihadist factions like the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra? Many of those new recruits would surely emanate from Tripoli.
In this context, the coming days and weeks could see significant developments in Tripoli. The state security apparatus will likely seek to support the relative calm in the city by avoiding actions that could prompt Sunni attacks on its forces. They could also modify the current security plan to ease tensions. Sunnis in Tripoli, however, regularly accuse the army of leniency towards the Alawites, while targeting them. Hezbollah could seek to negotiate, possibly to find an agreement on changes to the security plan. However, tensions between Hezbollah and the Sunni Future Movement will not help. Nor will the tensions between the two sides’ premier backers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. This includes the obvious rifts over both their efforts to become the main backer for the Lebanese army. Additionally, it remains questionable how much leverage Lebanon’s Sunni politicians actually hold over Tripoli’s more hard-line Sunni Islamists.
All in all, the security plan in Tripoli remains tenuous. Any move by local Sunnis to establish security zones devoid of official intervention or an escalation of attacks against Alawites or security forces would be dangerous developments. Tripoli’s traditionally localized tensions are seemingly on the verge of playing a more prominent role in Lebanon. The coming weeks will be crucial in determining whether they stay in check.