“I’m a Sunni,” he says, “and I think that Assad needs to go. That regime has been there for forty years. Why? Where is the democracy?”
The escalating sectarian war in neighboring Syria has steadily seeped into Ahmed’s hometown, the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. As we drive to the area that has been the epicenter of sporadic clashes between members of the troubled city’s Sunni and Alawite communities since the Syrian uprising began, we pass one of the mosques that was targeted in a double car bombing two weeks ago. The façade that faces the road is blackened and hung with a huge banner showing a montage of images of the aftermath. “I can’t say who did it,” says Ahmed, “but it’s linked to the war in Syria, for sure.”
We are heading for Syria Street, the political faultline with the grimly appropriate name. It forms the geographical divide between two neighborhoods that that have faced each other in a tense standoff since the dark days of Lebanon’s own civil war. The Sunni neighborhood of Bab Al-Tabbaneh nestles beneath the Alawite-dominated hillside of Jebel Mohsen. Syria Street is the frontline: behind it, just 30 meters and a few rolls of barbed wire separate the warring neighbors.
A corner shop near Tripoli’s main bus station sells flags of every affiliation: three-starred for the Syrian revolution, black with the Prophet’s seal for Al-Qaeda, yellow with a green Kalashnikov for Hezbollah. Business takes precedence over politics here. But on Syria Street it is different. Black Salafist flags flutter on poles propped up on islands of sandbags in the middle of the road, and the faces of the neighborhood’s young Sunni martyrs gaze down from bullet-riddled banners strung up above the side streets. Ahmed tells me that it is Tripoli’s native Lebanese population, not Syrians, who live here and own the shawarma shops and car garages along the street. But they have been dragged into another country’s war regardless.
The latest burst of fighting erupted in August. Eyewitnesses described machine gun fire exchanges on Syria Street itself, only quelled when the Lebanese Army moved into the district to re-establish the fragile peace. Even in the relative calm that followed, the snipers positioned on Jebel Mohsen’s vantage points continued to take aim at the residents of Bab Al-Tabbaneh below. Ahmed says that no-one knows when the fighting might flare up again: “Maybe in one hour’s time, maybe tomorrow,” he says, as he points to a gun positioned in clear view up on the hillside. He says that the street is quieter than he’s ever seen it; the shoppers are going elsewhere to buy their groceries.
At the northern end of the street a hairpin bend takes us up into Jebel Mohsen. In less than a minute, we have crossed through an invisible border into the pro-Assad area of this proxy Syrian war. Huge pictures of the Syrian dictator and pasted onto the sides of the buildings. Ahmed is nervous. “I don’t want to get stopped here,” he says. “They will wonder what we’re doing. Take your photos quickly, from inside the car.”
From here, you can see the massive strategic advantage that the Alawite militias of Jebel Mohsen have over their adversaries in Bab Al-Tabbaneh. The people who walk the street below are the easiest of targets.
We find Tripoli’s Syrians to the west of Syria Street, selling fruit and vegetables in a marketplace that is huddled in the shadow of a flyover. They have escaped from the war in their own country, but even here it is still on their doorstep.
Abdullah says he is seventeen, but stress has etched so many lines on his face that he looks like a man of forty. He tells us that he came to Tripoli alone: no job, no family, no wife. His family is still living in their house in the Aleppo countryside. “I haven’t spoken to them for two months,” he says. “The phone lines have been cut.”
And yet he cares little for the politics of it all. “When the fighting starts I go to Beirut,” he says, “and as soon as it stops I come back and carry on.” Living, not war, is his priority. The tensions in Tripoli may have their roots in what is happening across the border in Syria, but it is Lebanese history and politics that is providing the momentum.
Back in the comfort of a bar in cosmopolitan Beirut, just an hour and a half’s drive from the standoff in Tripoli, two friends drink coffee and chat. The situation in Syria is playing on the minds of everyone here. A week ago, it looked as though America was set to attack Damascus, and Lebanon was bracing itself for the repercussions.
“Lebanon could fall apart in two days,” says one.
“Don’t think about it, habibi,” his friend replies, dropping his head into his folded arms in a gesture that says he’s sick of it all.
“But we have to think about it,” says the first. “We have to think about it, because it’s happening.”
This article was originally published in The Majalla.