As I wrote recently, tensions were running high in Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli. Security forces were on alert for a breakdown in the security plan put in place in April to end incessant fighting between the city’s Alawite and Sunni militias. The Alawites of Jabal Mohsen, however, have become a secondary focus for many hard-line Sunni jihadists in Tripoli as of late. Attention has shifted to the Lebanese army, which is accused of backing Shiite Hezbollah, and is actively curbing growing Sunni jihadist activities in northern and eastern Lebanon. It is in this context that violence renewed with a vengeance in Tripoli on October 24.
The army arrested a local Sunni militant accused of recruiting fighters for the Islamic State (IS). In response, Sunni militants attacked a Lebanese army patrol in Tripoli. The army responded with full force. The attack led to days of intense fighting in the heart of Tripoli, mostly in the confines of the city’s restive Bab al-Tabbeneh district and the congested Tripoli Shouk. Fighting also expanded to the Bhannine and Minieh regions, north of Tripoli. Underscoring the intensity of the fighting, the Lebanese army utilized helicopter gunships to target militants in their fortified hideouts. After days of fighting, on October 27, the Lebanese army stormed the militants’ citadel, the Abdullah bin Masoud Mosque. It was a Sunni militant command center manned by militant commanders allegedly linked to al-Nusra Front, Shadi Malawi and Osama Mansour, and their loyalists. But they were not there and no reports of resistance surfaced when the army finally took the position. The fighting to oust the militants, however, left 42 people dead. Over 100 gunmen were captured. Thousands of city’ residents were displaced.
The Lebanese army’s offensive in the aftermath of the militant attack pointed to the government’s objective to finish the fighting in Tripoli quickly and decisively. As was seen in Arsal, the government, backed by pledges of support from many political leaders, was likely hesitant to reach another deal to end the fighting that will simply allow militants to fight again at a later date. Moreover, leaving those militants in place could allow them to establish more permanent and de-facto operational areas.
Still, areas of central Tripoli are likely to stay hotbeds for Sunni Islamists, and heightened security measures will remain. It also remains uncertain whether the army will continue with operations over the long-term to aggressively disarm all Sunni militias in the city. If not, this would indicate a likely continuation of periodic security incidents involving Sunnis, the LAF, and Alawites. Moreover, it seems some militants have escaped the army’s siege. They will likely attempt to set up operations elsewhere or re-infiltrate the city at a later date. Regardless, Tripoli will likely remain on edge for sometime.