Tripoli, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Lebanese army deployed to the Bab El-Tabbaneh district of the northern city of Tripoli on Monday, in order to end eight days of violent clashes between Alawite residents of the neighboring Jabal Mohsen and Sunni residents of the district.
The clashes in Tripoli have resulted in 18 deaths and 93 injuries—including 12 soldiers—to date. The latest operation follows on the heels of the Lebanese army’s deployment to the Jabal Mohsen area two days ago and warnings from armed groups in Bab El-Tabbaneh to the Lebanese armed forces to stay out.
The clashes followed mounting sectarian tension, ignited by the fighting in neighboring Syria and stoked by two bombings outside Sunni mosques in the city in August, which killed approximately 50 people. Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, is inhabited by a Sunni majority but also a small number of members of the Alawite sect that dominates the government and security forces of Bashar Al-Assad’s government in Syria.
Sheikh Amir Raad, a member of the “good efforts” commission in Tripoli, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the tension between the army and the armed groups was caused by “links between these groups and various parties.”
Raad said the army did not coordinate with the armed groups in Bab El-Tabbaneh as in the past because “while security used to be achieved by agreement, it seemed to be no longer the case, and as in most reconciliation situations, someone will have to pay the price.”
He also alleged that combatants in Bab El-Tabbaneh feared prosecution after a government commissioner at the Military Court, Judge Saqir Saqir, tasked the intelligence directorate of the Lebanese army with collecting information about those involved in the recent Tripoli incidents, in order to take the necessary legal measures. Sheikh Raad asked: “Will only the people of Bab El-Tabbaneh be pursued? And will the judiciary be able to punish combatants from Jabal Mohsen? These are questions which we have to ask.”
Raad has expressed fears that “there may be someone who wants to make the armed groups of El-Tabbaneh clash with the army, and this would be a great tragedy.” He added that “despite our reservations about the army, approximately 60 percent of the soldiers are Sunnis, and the Sunnis are the backbone of the army. There may be someone who wants to put Bab El-Tabbaneh in confrontation with the army and exit the conflict themselves, and this has to be noted.”
Raad also points out that “the general mood in El-Tabbaneh wants to see the perpetrators of the two explosions in Tripoli punished and the speeding up of their punishment would calm public opinion, and we say form this forum, no more excuses.”
Initial findings of the investigations into the explosions in Al-Taqwa and Al-Salam Mosques in August have focused on a group of men from Jabal Mehsen, some of whom have been arrested, with five others still at large.
Meanwhile, the army command, in what seemed to be a swift response to the demands, issued a statement on Monday which said “the intelligence directorate yesterday referred [a suspect] to the judiciary, Ahmad Mohamed, for helping one of the main suspect in the Tripoli explosions, by moving him to a hiding place and helping him escape from Lebanon.”
The minister of defense in Lebanon’s caretaker government, Fayiz Ghosn, described events in Tripoli as “very dangerous”. He said “efforts must be doubled to stop the events happening again and to hold accountable all those involved in armed clashes which killed many innocent civilians.”
Ghosn said in a statement that “the security plan which is being implemented is very important and its success should save the city from a repeat of the security problems.”
He added that the success of the plan relied on conditions, “the first of which is ensuring…that no cover is given to any armed person or law violator…and the second is not to create an environment of support for the armed groups whoever they are affiliated to, especially after hearing some excuses being made recently for these people, and political cover being provided for them.”
Ghosn also called on citizens to support the work of the armed forces and the judicial authorities, and not to allow it to be “exploited for cheap political ends.”
Meanwhile, Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah said on Monday “the situation in Tripoli requires a brave political decision and the state knows a lot about the cells whose aim is to inflame the situation in Lebanon, but so far, they have done nothing about them.”
Nasrallah backed the deployment of the army and security forces to Tripoli and called on residents to cooperate with them, “not call ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] or Nusra to Tripoli or Lebanon as that complicates the situation and does not resolve it.”
Ahmed Fatfat , however, Lebanese MP for the Future Bloc, accused Nasrallah and his organization of being responsible for the violence in Tripoli, and accused him of “sending arms to the city.” In a TV interview on Monday, Fatfat said “when Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said Jabal Mohsen is part of Syrian territory, we saw the security clashes erupt again.”
The army command issued a statement on Monday which said “during deployment to restore calm in Tripoli, a military patrol on Syria Road in the Bab El-Tabbaneh area came under gunfire from armed men, injuring three soldiers. The soldiers returned fire and chased the perpetrators in order to arrest them and refer them to the judicial authorities.”