Northern Lebanon Burning

Northern Lebanon is currently suffering the kind of violent absurdity that occurs nowhere in the world but the Middle East.

The Syrian civil war is spilling into the city of Tripoli, the second largest in Lebanon. Sunni Muslims in the poor neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh are at war with an Alawite militia in the adjacent hilltop neighborhood of Jebel Mohsen that supports Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Last week there was even a shootout at a hospital, of all places.

So far this is hardly original. What makes this conflict absurdly unusual is that segments of the Lebanese army are protecting both militias, and they’re doing so on behalf of a foreign government—Syria’s.

I drove up there from Beirut to meet with Mosbah Ahdab, a political liberal who was a member of the anti-Syrian “March 14” bloc of Lebanon’s parliament until a deal was struck to get rid of him after Hezbollah’s invasion of Beirut in 2008.

His name was on a kill list before he was booted. He hardly left his house for months at a time.

“We are hunted one after the other,” he told a Guardian reporter not long after five gunmen shot MP Pierre Gemayel through the windshield of his car with silenced machine pistols.

Ahdab belongs to an old and prominent family and the liberal wing of Tripoli’s Sunni Muslim community. He serves wine in his house. I met his wife. She looks like a model. She doesn’t wear a veil or a headscarf, nor does she have to stay in the back of the house when men come to visit as is customarily the case in the more-conservative Gulf countries.

I also met his daughter, a little girl, when she came home from school. She arrived with a friend and they sat at a table and worked on an art project. Ahdab and his wife spoke French to each other. His daughter spoke English to me. Clearly theirs is a well-educated household.

He hosted me in his living room.

“The fighting between Sunnis and Alawites looks pretty gruesome,” I said. “Is this city as dangerous as it appears from a distance?”

“It's very dangerous,” he said. “This morning some shop owners came here and screamed that no one comes to Tripoli anymore. We have no security. The security institutions are protecting the fighters on both sides. They're not protecting civilians. This is a fact.”

It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. Factions within the Lebanese army really are protecting both the Sunni and Alawite militias. Partly this is because the army is just as divided along sectarian lines as the country is, but mostly it’s because many of the army officers are still loyal to Assad and to Hezbollah. That still hasn’t changed since Syria’s occupation of Lebanon when the Assad family and their henchmen sabotaged the Lebanese army and bent it to their will. When Hezbollah invaded Beirut in 2008, maintaining control over pieces of Lebanon’s army was on its list of demands.

Even so, it still sounds ridiculous. Why on earth would Assad’s people protect an anti-Syrian, anti-Alawite, and anti-Hezbollah Sunni militia?

It’s all about propaganda, for which the Assad regime is peerless in the Middle East. Not even Hamas is as practiced or competent.

“The security services are creating a narrative,” Ahdab said, “saying there's no such thing as revolution in Syria, that what we have is Al Qaeda fighting the government. They’re asking the international community which they prefer. They point at the same thing happening in Lebanon. Assad says Lebanon is sending terrorists across the border from the so-called ‘emirate of Tripoli.’ Syria’s ambassador actually said this at the United Nations.”

Assad and his Lebanese and Iranian allies have been framing the fight in Syria as a war against Al Qaeda from the very beginning, long before Jabhat al-Nusra—which the United States has designated a terrorist organization—even existed. Indeed, Assad framed the fight in Syria as a war against Al Qaeda even before the Free Syrian Army existed, when his soldiers were firing on unarmed demonstrators in the streets and calling them terrorists.

Now that the jihadist al-Nusra front does exist, though, Assad’s claims look a little more credible. But al-Nusra—which is a separate entity from the Free Syrian Army—isn’t coming from Lebanon. Its funding comes from the Gulf. And some of its leaders are the very same individuals Assad himself dispatched to Iraq to kill Americans.

“Nobody goes to the funerals,” Ahdab said, “but security guys show up and shoot their guns in the air. They film it and people say, my gosh, look at that, it's Al Qaeda grieving its members who are fighting Bashar al-Assad. I saw them. I know those guys personally. I know exactly who sent them.”

This is one of the reasons conspiracy theories are popular in the Middle East. Bizarre conspiracies actually happen in this part of the world. It’s “normal.” The Syrian regime has been pulling stunts like that one for decades.

The liberal Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid recently highlighted similar shenanigans in NOW Lebanon: “The campaign by the Assad regime included releasing known jihadist and terrorist elements from state prisons at the same time nonviolent protest leaders were imprisoned. This tactic is sometimes called ‘tailoring your enemies.’ It is inherently a risky approach, but can serve to divide enemy ranks by creating a more radical camp in their midst, and in this case, undermining the advocates of nonviolence. This tactic had been repeatedly used by the Assad regime during the Lebanese civil war, allowing it to emerge as the main power broker there.”

Ahdab’s phone rang. He answered and switched to Arabic.

“Sorry,” he said to me after a couple of moments. “There is this little girl who has a problem I need to fix.”

Fixing citizens’ problems is part of his job now. He is no longer in the government, but he’s a community leader, a modern urban “sheikh” of sorts, and that’s what such people do in the Middle East. It’s one way they get their support, and it’s something that’s expected of them once they have power and influence.

His assistant served lunch. After we finished eating, Ahdab had to host a delegation of locals in a second room for a couple of minutes while they hashed out another of Tripoli’s problems.

“The fighters are very aware of what’s happening here,” Ahdab said, picking up where we left off. “Setting this place on fire was very successful in 1982 when Syria created the so-called ‘emirate’ in Tripoli. It gave the Syrians international cover to bomb the city. They came in here and massacred 800 people. Nobody dared to even identify the corpses. They used the port for executions and they rounded up people in Tripoli’s schools and deported them to Syrian prisons. We still haven’t heard about what happened to some who disappeared. But the emir, Sheikh Shaban, stayed at home and was protected by the Syrians while all this was happening.”

Don’t misunderstand. The fighting between Sunni and Alawite militias is real. It is not theater. The fighters are pawns in a larger game, but they’re deadly serious.

Each side deserves at least some measure of sympathy. The Alawite fighters feel threatened as detested minorities in league with a dying system while the Sunni fighters wish to see Assad and his local proxies destroyed.

But the idea that there is a general conflict between Sunni and Alawite citizens, Ahdab says, is ridiculous. “I know the Alawites. My bodyguard is an Alawite. He has been with me for sixteen years. But we have this Alawite militia that has been protected by the Syrian regime, and now they're protecting by the quote, unquote, resistance.”

The “resistance,” of course, is Hezbollah. That’s what they call themselves. They’re currently “resisting” the Zionist Entity by killing Sunni Muslims in Syria. 

“Recently,” Ahdab said, “some of the Alawite fighters were captured by civilians and beaten. They wouldn't hand them over to the army because the fighters would be freed in an hour. There's a dirty game going on here that has nothing to do with the population.”

The Alawites are backed by Syria and Hezbollah while the Sunni militia is funded and armed by Saudis, Qataris, Emiratis, and Kuwaitis. And while the Sunni militia is hostile to Syria and its interests, it can’t very well be shut down by the Syrian regime and its local allies because that would alter the narrative. It’s ludicrous, truly. But that’s the Middle East for you.

“Everybody knows what's happening,” Ahdab says. “It's not just me saying this. You can talk to people in the streets.”

I did confirm it with others, not just people on the street, but by professional political analysts in Beirut whose jobs and reputations demand they get this stuff right.

“It has become ridiculous,” Ahdab said. “Everyone is now talking about this so-called Islamic emirate in Tripoli.”

The so-called “emirate” is the Islamist state-within-a-state that’s supposed to exist in Tripoli but which does not actually exist outside the phantasmagoria of Syrian and Hezbollah propaganda. In Tripoli, alcohol is available. I saw plenty of uncovered woman walking around. I didn’t see a single man with a beard, a forehead bruised from prayer, or wearing any clothing which would mark him as an Islamist. Not one. Such people exist, but they vanish into the enormous population of regular people. This is Lebanon, not Gaza or Saudi Arabia.

He took me out into the city. “You’ll be safe with me,” he said.

I wouldn’t have felt in much danger without him, to be honest. The fighting between Sunnis and Alawites is concentrated on the front line between the two neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jebel Mohsen. As long as I stayed clear of that particular area, I almost certainly would not have any problems.

But he drove me to that area so I could see it. Jebel Mohsen, the Alawite neighborhood, is perched upon a hill (Jebel means mountain in Arabic) over its enemy neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh.

The Sunnis in Bab al-Tabbaneh feel threatened by this. How would you feel if people who wanted to kill you lived in the hills right over your house? But the Alawites feel threatened, too. They look down the hill and see that they are surrounded by hostiles in every direction.

We passed a Christian church in the car. There are Christians in Tripoli, too.

“It’s stressful enough living here as a Sunni,” Ahdab said. “Can you imagine what it’s like here for the Christians?”

We got out of the car and walked through an old part of the city near the waterfront.

“Here is the center of the Islamic emirate of Tripoli,” he said sarcastically.

It looked and felt no more Islamist than the Christian half of Beirut. The area could be a very nice place with a little fixing up, but there’s no money. The economy has collapsed. No one goes to Tripoli anymore. They’re afraid.

Everyone on the street recognized Ahdab. Everyone. They waved and smiled and ran up to him. Clearly he’s popular. Barack Obama would get a similar reception in Harlem or the Upper West Side. I could see how Ahdab easily won elections. The reaction of strangers on the street to his presence went a long way toward confirming that he, not the Salafists, represents the real social fabric of Tripoli.

Would a bearded Islamist with a rifle get the same sort of treatment while walking those streets? I highly doubt it. The overwhelming majority of Lebanon’s Sunnis back Saad Hariri’s Future Movement. Its ideology is one of liberal and capitalism and peace with the neighbors. Hariri even wants peace, or at the very least the cessation of hostilities, with the Israelis. The Muslim Brotherhood exists in Lebanon, but it’s microscopic in size and has no clout of influence. The only reason the Salafists have even the small amount of influence they do have is because they’re backed by Saudi and Qatari money. Their ideology isn’t indigenous. It’s implanted.

Back at his house, Ahdab opened a bottle of red wine from Lebanon’s Chateau Kefraya and refilled my glass when it got low. He drank, too. Why shouldn’t he? Lebanon is a nation of drinkers. The Lebanese—including Lebanese Muslims—consume copious amounts of beer, wine, and liquor, especially arak and Scotch.

“I'm staying in Tripoli,” he said, “because people like me are the real Tripoli residents. We cannot disappear. Even the bearded guys who receive millions from the Gulf have to deal with us.”

The Lebanese government could shut all this down instantly if it wanted. A war to disarm Hezbollah would blow the country to pieces, but disarming ragtag ideological crackpots with microscopic support bases would take no time at all and likely wouldn’t even cost lives as long as both sides were disarmed simultaneously.

The reason this isn’t happening is because Hezbollah and its allies control the government—or at least they did before Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned over these very issues a couple of days ago. And the reason they controlled the government is because they seized power in 2008 when they invaded Beirut. So Northern Lebanon will have to keep simmering in ideological and sectarian conflict. Apparently, the road to Jerusalem passes through Tripoli.

But Assad and Hezbollah and their Lebanese allies are not protecting Sunni fighters in and around the town of Arsal in the Bekaa Valley on the other side of Mount Lebanon.

“The Syrian army has bombed it many times,” Ahdab said. “Everyone there wants the army to protect them, but the army will not. The same thing is happening on the northern coastal border. The Syrians are shelling the area and the people there get no protection. The Syrians are shooting continuously inside Lebanon. People are terrified. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs doesn’t say anything. The Ministry of Interior won’t send the army.”

Hezbollah’s main focus is in Syria. Its fighters never thought they end up waging a battle for their own survival in the Arab land to the east, but that’s what the “resistance” has become now that one of their patrons and armorers is in an existential fight for his life.

The war really is existential for the Assad regime, and it is seen as such by much of Syria’s Alawite community, too. They only make up twelve percent (roughly) of Syria’s population. And since the Alawite regime has been lording it over the Sunni majority with a totalitarian and terroristic police state for the last forty years, they’re deathly afraid of retribution and perhaps persecution should the Assad family and its local allies lose power. That’s why the regime opened fire on unarmed demonstrators before the conflict became militarized. Even a non-violent revolution threatens their lives as well as their power.

Washington has hardly done anything. Syria isn’t Iraq, but it’s similarly complex. It’s riven along sectarian lines, and there are no institutions aside from the repressive regime backed by one sect against the majority. Assad also has friends in Iran and in Lebanon. An intervention of any kind could destabilize the whole region even more than it already is. That’s the last thing the White House wants.

President Obama’s caution, however, looks like overt support for the Assad regime to Ahdab and many others I know in Lebanon.

“There was a peaceful revolution to start with in Syria,” Ahdab said. “but nobody talks about it. Assad and the Gulf have turned it into a confrontation between Al Qaeda and the government. Assad is receiving arms from Iran and Russia and the Nusra extremists are receiving arms from the Gulf. Why shouldn’t the Free Syrian Army receive weapons? Everybody here is wondering what’s going on. Why on earth does the international community think it’s okay for the Gulf to send money to extremist groups while the moderates in the Free Syrian Army get nothing?  Iran doesn’t want to lose Syria, but Iran will keep Syria if this thing gets stalled by the West. At least tell your friends in the Gulf to stop sending money to al Nusra. Then Al Qaeda will no longer be financed.”

He scoffed, clearly disgusted at the whole situation.

Keeping the Syrian and Iranian regimes in place is not a viable policy option for those who are at war with Al Qaeda, not only because Assad has been using Al Qaeda himself for years against his enemies—including the United States—but also because Iran can just as easily do so as well.

“People in the West,” he said, “are saying there is no possibility for an alliance between Sunnis and Shias, but Ayatollah Khomeini was very clear in his book when he talked about the alliance of the oppressed. I said this a long time ago and nobody wanted to believe me, but I think now it’s obvious. Half of Al Qaeda is in Iran. It’s financed and protected by Iran. Hizb ut-Tahrir has a mixed leadership of Sunnis and Shias. After 2008, Hezbollah sent a delegation to Tripoli to talk to the Salafists. Why would they talk to the Salafists? They aren’t part of the social fabric.”

Tripoli is hardly an Islamist environment. Some Tripolitans are Salafists, but I haven’t seen any there. And—believe me—Salafists are easy to spot. With their beards and their clothes they look like Osama bin Laden. I’m not sure I’ve laid eyes on even a dozen Salafists in the eight years I’ve been living in and visiting Lebanon.

“There is a different Islam from the Wahhabi and Salafist Islam,” he said. “It’s here and it can’t disappear. Half the imams in the mosques are Salafists because they’re paid by the Gulf, but half the population isn’t Salafist.”

“What percentage of the population here is Islamist?” I said. In my own gut-level and from-the-hip assessment I’d say the percentage of people in Tripoli who are Islamists have to be in the single digits at most.

“Just like you have Orthodox Christians and Orthodox Jews,” he said, “we have Orthodox Muslims. And we have Takfiris—extremists who say I am not a real Muslim—but they are a very small minority. They are at most one percent. They are not from here.”

That sounds about right to me. He ought to know. He’s from there. Perhaps he’s a little more liberal than the average Tripolipolitans, but it doesn’t stop him from winning elections. People like him are unelectable in Egypt, but they’re the majority of elected Sunni politicians in Lebanon. The only reason Ahdab isn’t still in the government is because he was forced out after Hezbollah’s coup d’etat in 2008.

“You can’t put everyone in one basket,” he said. “Some people put Sunnis, Salafists, Wahhabis, Takfiris, and Al Qaeda together. It’s nonsense.”

He sipped from his glass of red wine.

“I’m fought by all the money that has been coming here for the last twenty years,” he said, “but I am still here. Why? Because I represent the real social fabric of Tripoli. A Muslim like me would never survive here if Tripoli was Islamist.”

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