Tripoli is the second largest city in Lebanon after Beirut. A traditional stronghold of conservative Sunnism, Tripoli is the birthplace of Lebanon’s Salafist movement. However, it is also a stronghold of the Lebanese Alawites, with around 50,000 of them living in the city. In 1966, Alawites came to power in neighbouring Syria, triggering a pattern of Sunni/Alawite and Syrian/Lebanese violence that has caused great instability in both countries, with conflict in one place bleeding over into the other. The Tripoli neighbourhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh (Sunni) and Jabal Mohsen (Alawite) are emblematic of both the deep relationship and the divide between Syria and Lebanon. The two areas have always been divided by their ties to Syria, and were the focal point of the brutal civil war that lasted between 1975 and 1990. During that war, the Alawites supported the Arab Democratic Party and fought alongside the Syrian Army against the Sunni Islamist Tawhid Movement. Despite the political divisions between the Alawites and the Sunni, the two communities have much in common — they both suffer from severe social problems including poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and sectarianism. These issues have left room for extremism to grow. Most recently, the war in Syria has caused major instability in Lebanon, as a growing number of Syrian refugees have affected the political, economic and social climate. Up until summer 2014, Lebanon had managed to remain relatively calm, despite the continuous escalation of violence in Syria and increasing number of refugees. However, with tensions and weapons trafficking progressively increasing along the Lebanese-Syrian border, and increased security incidents, many fear that the situation in the country may take a turn for the worse.
Tripoli is the second largest city in Lebanon after Beirut. Located in the northern governorate of Lebanon, the city consists of an overwhelming density of Sunni Muslims out of the 500,000 residents of the city and is considered as the traditional stronghold of conservative Sunnis in Lebanon. Tripoli is also the birthplace of Lebanon’s Salafi Movement, a puritanical Sunni movement which includes different Jihadist schools, many of which tend towards violence against other sectarian groups or even other Sunni religious schools.
The Alawites of Lebanon are mainly located in the Jabal Mohsen neighbourhood of Tripoli and few villages in Akkar, also in the north of Lebanon. It is estimated that the number of Alawite residents in Tripoli is around 50,000 of an entire population in Lebanon of around 120,000. Since the early days of the Ottoman Empire, the Alawites of the Levant were considered to be an oppressed faction of the community. After the fall of the Empire and the beginning of French mandate of Syria, Alawites were recruited as soldiers in the army. One of the first rebellions against the French mandate was led by Alawite Alcheikh Saleh Alali, and after independence from France, his co-religionists came to power in Syria in 1966 (represented by the Assad family since 1970). This angered some of the Sunni majority of Syria, which reacted with an Islamic uprising in Syria, an insurgency which was crushed by the Hama Massacre of 1982.
The Sunni neighbourhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Alawite neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen have always been divided by their relationships with Syria politically and with Syria Street geographically. Jabal Mohsen sits on a hilltop that overlooks Bab al-Tabbaneh along with the Beddawi and Mankobeen regions, both of which are involved in armed clashes as well.
The most significant clash between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh occurred during the Lebanese Civil War that lasted from 1975 to 1990, before which the populations of the two neighbourhoods were interwoven. During the civil war, the Alawites in the Jabal Mohsen supported the Arab Democratic Party (ADP) and fought alongside the Syrian Army against the Sunni Islamist Tawhid Movement, which was based mainly in Bab al-Tabbaneh and later in Abo Samra.
In August 1984, in the midst of the civil war, violent clashes erupted between the two armed militias leaving hundreds of casualties. Skirmishes continued between 1984 and 1986, culminating in the fall of that year with a large massacre known as “Bab al-Tebbaneh massacre” led by the Syrian army aided by ADP and militias associated with several political parties from all religious groups. The massacre is considered to have scarred the two communities, which are in need of a true reconciliation effort to overcome the wounds. Such a process never took place during the occupation of the Syrian Army in Lebanon during the 15 years after the civil war had ended.
Despite the political divisions between the two communities, there are many commonalities between them. Poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, sectarianism, and many other severe social problems contribute to the disappearance of the virtual barriers between the two neighbourhoods. The two also witness drug abuse, considered under control compared to other regions, and a proportion of child labour in the workforce. Once any of these topics is taken by itself, most of the indicators would look almost the same. Although the population is well known for its expertise in handicraft and clothes manufacturing, most residents in the two neighbourhoods are unemployed, which make them easy to mobilize when clashes erupt. The neighbourhoods were prosperous until a flood in the 1960s destroyed many buildings, which was followed by the civil war. Moreover, North Lebanon is one of the most impoverished parts of Lebanon and is neglected by the government, leaving room for extremism to grow.
In February 2005, tensions increased after the assassination of Sunni Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which led to a division of the country between two political camps: March 8th (the opposition at that time) and March 14th (government). This division had severe implications at the community level.
In summer 2006, much of Lebanon’s infrastructure was destroyed and thousands died and/or were displaced throughout the country during the 34-day conflict with Israel.
In May 2007, a conflict broke out between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Fatah al-Islam, an Islamist militant organization, in Naher el Bared, a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)-run Palestinian refugee camp located near the northern city of Tripoli. At least 169 Lebanese soldiers, 287 insurgents, and 47 civilians were killed. Fighting continued until the LAF declared victory on 7 September 2007. At that point, much of the camp was completely destroyed, and it remains in ruins today. Following the conflict, relationships between Lebanese and Palestinian populations living inside and around the camp deteriorated, and tensions between them remain high. The implications of this conflict continue to date.
In the first months of 2008, rising tensions due to the deteriorating political situation were translated into street clashes in Beirut that often involved small weapons fire. As a result of a government decision to uncover the communications network used by Hezbollah, clashes erupted in May 2008, leading to violence in the streets of Beirut and areas with a high concentration of the Sunni Future Movement. In Northern Lebanon in the Tripoli and Akkar areas, at least 65 people were killed and more than 200 injured in the worst sectarian violence since the end of the civil war in 1990. The violence in 2008 and more recently in 2012 includes acts not only directed at individuals but at institutions; for example, several Alawite-owned shops located around Tripoli were burned with no punishment for the arsonist(s).
In the following days, the conflict spread across Lebanon as fierce fighting between pro-government and opposition supporters erupted in Tripoli and Akkar in the North and parts of the Beqaa. Much of the fighting was between Shiite and Sunni gunmen. Following the ceasefire, an Arab League delegation successfully brokered a six-point agreement that included the election of General Michel Suleiman as president of the republic, the formation of a national unity government, and an agreement to enter into talks in Doha, Qatar to resolve outstanding issues.
During November, again in the north, one person was slightly injured when an Inerga-type rocket-propelled grenade hit a café in the Tripoli neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen. In 2009, eight people were wounded when a similar grenade targeted the same café. For the second time in two days, an Inerga-type rocket propelled grenade hit Jabal Mohsen neighbourhood. The attack inflicted no casualties. Shortly afterwards, unknown assailants tossed a hand grenade into nearby Bab al-Tabanneh neighbourhood.
One continued source of conflict is tension between Sunni and Alawite communities, such as in the Bab el Tabbaneh/ Jabal Mohsen District of Tripoli. Other flashpoints are areas with concentrations of Palestinians, including mixed Lebanese-Palestinian gatherings surrounding refugee camps. The increasing presence of Salafi Islamic fundamentalist groups in camps and elsewhere in the North is also a continued security threat. The aftermath of the violence in the Naher el Bared Palestinian camp, when clashes took place between the Lebanese Army and the radical Fatah al-Islam group, continues to affect the situation in the region, given the displacement of many Palestinians to surrounding areas.
In November 2010, four residents of Wadi Khaled in north Lebanon were killed after a clash with guards along the Lebanon-Syria border. To express their anger over the deaths of the young men, angry residents torched offices used previously by the General Security Department. They also hurled stones at the vehicles of the Common Border Force, whose members responded by opening fire on the protesters, wounding six people.
Tensions were exacerbated in mid-2011 by the conflict in Syria and influx of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees into the North. In March 2011, a series of demonstrations against the Syrian regime started across Syria; crackdowns by security forces have left thousands dead or missing. Lebanon is facing increasing pressures as a result of the uprising in Syria. An estimated 5,000 Syrian refugees fled Syria through the northern Lebanese border, despite heavy security measures taken by both Lebanese and Syrian authorities. Syrian refugees in Lebanon are suffering from difficult living conditions and are mainly being hosted by Lebanese families in the North. Several demonstrations have taken place in Lebanon both in support of the embattled Syrian president and in support of the Syrian people and their attempted revolution. Beirut and Tripoli have been the scene of several face-offs between the rival rallies, with security forces regularly having to intervene and disperse the demonstrations. Although most demonstrations have remained peaceful, one pro-Syrian regime demonstration in Tripoli in mid-May resulted in violence. Deadly clashes also occurred between gunmen in the neighbourhoods of Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh. According to security officials, 79 people were injured and seven were killed in the clashes. Troops have since deployed in the two rival neighbourhoods, and tensions have continued to run high.
The overall situation in Lebanon remained unstable over the last three months. The political, economic and security situations continued to be heavily influenced by violence in neighbouring Syria, a key player in Lebanon’s internal affairs, and in the region. Thousands of Syrian refugees continued to flow into Lebanon, mainly to the North and Beqaa regions, which increased tensions in the country and led to security incidents along the borders and in other parts of the country. Meanwhile, middle- and high-income individuals from the Jabal Mohsen and Bab el Tabbaneh neighbourhoods, especially those living on the borderlines, are leaving their homes. Rising political and sectarian divisions in Lebanon, linked to opposing views on Syria, have raised fears that Lebanon could again descend into civil strife and even war.
Since the beginning of the uprising in Syria in March 2011, the Lebanese government has strived to remain neutral in an attempt to preserve stability in the country. Lebanon had managed to remain relatively calm despite the continuous escalation of violence in Syria, and increasing number of refugees crossing the border. However, with tensions and weapons trafficking progressively increasing along the Lebanese-Syrian border, and increased security incidents, many feared that the situation in the country would take a turn for the worse.
In December 2013, after months of deadly clashes, the Lebanese government placed Tripoli under the control of the army, marking the first time that had occurred since the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990. The city had begun to represent a microcosm of the Syrian War with fighting and attacks in the city breaking out in direct response to defeats or victories across the border. Further complicating the conflict were those returning to Tripoli after fighting on opposite sides of the Syrian war, only to continue the fight once home. The emergence of the radical Salafist groups Nusra Front and Islamic State affiliates in Tripoli only exacerbated the pre-existing conflicts there.
At present, since 2011, Lebanon has taken in 1.5 million Syrian refugees. With a population, over just 4 million itself, this has given Lebanon the most refugees per capita in the world. This surge has intensified concerns over an already struggling and weak Lebanese economy, has led to increased poverty levels, high unemployment, strains on the sanitation infrastructure, overcrowded urban areas, and has impacted the fragile balance of maintaining peace in a complex population.
In recent years, the Lebanese government has been intentionally making life harder for refugees there. In 2015, Lebanon stopped the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from registering Syrians entering the country. Without this entry date, most Syrian’s in Lebanon are now at risk for deportation as they lack the paperwork to remain in the country and work. As a consequence of this, the majority of Syrians are living below the poverty line and are relying on informal labour methods to survive. It is not only the Syrians in Lebanon who struggle. Long established Palestinian refugees whose numbers are said to top 300,000 are also struggling. Still isolated to refugee camps, they face systemic barriers to civil rights- employment, property ownership, mobility- keeping them from properly integrating into Lebanese society. This inequality for the refugee populations is leading to wider problems for the Lebanese government.
Suspicion of the government is widespread. Tripoli’s majority Sunni community feels increasingly threatened and marginalised at the expense of Shiite factions by political parties and security forces, notably Hezbollah. A failing public school system, lack of job creation and poverty reduction initiatives are furthering frustration. What was once a regional trade centre is now one of the poorest cities in the Middle East. The UN states that in Tripoli the average Lebanese citizen is now earning less than $4/day, and that 51% of Tripoli residents live in extreme poverty. https://data2.unhcr.org/fr/documents/download/59850.
Extreme neglect of the city’s infrastructure is rampant. Poor quality buildings house the poor and refugees. A substandard water system with widespread pollution restricts the ability to meet needs. An inefficient supply of electricity and a weak national grid system unable to handle demand has led to regular blackouts with some areas experiencing power cuts of up to 17 hours per day. There is a lacking public transport system hindering the economy, an overburdened healthcare system which excludes unregistered refugees and a waste management crisis which poses health risks to residents. Frustrations over this neglect have bubbled over in recent months. Mass protests have been occurring in recent months which have unified the city. As a result, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned in October 2019, however, this has failed to quell protests in Tripoli.