Posts Tagged With: Tripoli

The eternal return of Jean Said Makdisi’s Beirut Fragments (1990)

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(Tripoli’s blast, North Lebanon, August 23 2013. Photograph by http://www.news.com.au)

“We are unforgiving judges of those who have not shared our experiences. We are like a secret society. We have our own language; we recognise signs that no one else does; we joke about our most intense pain, bewildering outsiders; we walk a tightrope pitched over an abyss of panic that a novice does not even perceive, let alone understand. We are provoked to anger and fear by the smallest detail while suffering calamity calmly”.

(Jean Said Makdisi, 1990)

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(Dahiye’s explosion, Beirut’s Southern Suburbs, August 15 2013. Photograph by http://www.beirut.com)

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Lebanese army beating Syrian migrants…only xenophobia?

A piece I wrote for IRIN. I tried to read the event from the political angle. The Ministry of Defense refused to meet me. I won’t try to organize a meeting with a minister anymore, it’s just a waste of time and money and you know what they’re going to say anyway.

Analysis: Catch-22 for Syrian migrants in Lebanon

syrians beaten by leb army

 

BEIRUT, 1 November 2012 (IRIN) – Syrians in Lebanon are increasingly coming under attack as lingering anti-Syrian sentiment intensifies amid the current conflict next door.

The Syrian imbroglio has polarized various sects and factions in Lebanon. While Sunni Lebanese in the north have welcomed tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in the last year and a half, Lebanese of other sects and in other parts of the county are less welcoming.

On the streets of Beirut’s Christian neighbourhood of Geitawi, a stronghold of the Lebanese Christian right, their intolerance of Syrian migrants, who have worked in Lebanon for years, is palpable:

“Syrians ruled us for 30 years, how can we like them?” protested Kamal Sa’ad, 48. “God willing, the war will kill them all. They’re an Arab people; we [Lebanese Christians] are Europeans.”

Residents of the neighbourhood have gathered around 60 signatures demanding the governor of Beirut take “the necessary security and legal measures” against Syrian workers who are perceived to pose a threat.

“We are sending this letter to warn the authorities that if they don’t intervene, we will organize ourselves and solve the situation through violence,” warned Cesar, a local butcher who preferred not to divulge his second name.

“Drunken Syrian workers are always around harassing women at night,” said Charbal Issa, 29. “You know what we will do? [Impose] a 6pm curfew for Syrians, so that they work and sleep – nothing else.”

Military raids and mob violence

The estimated 300,000 Syrian seasonal workers in Lebanon before the Syrian uprising began in March 2011 were often the object of anti-Syrian sentiment – a legacy of Syria’s 29-year occupation of Lebanon, starting in the 1970s.

“Following the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon [in 2005], each bombing blamed on the Syrian regime was followed by the beating of some Syrian workers,” said Yara Chehayed, a member of the Beirut-based Anti-Racism Movement.

But since the conflict in neighbouring Syria, when Syrians started fleeing to Lebanon in large numbers, fears that the Syrian opposition will use Lebanon as a base for its own struggle – the way Palestinians did in the lead-up to the Lebanese civil war – have intensified pre-existing xenophobia. Military raids are now increasingly replacing the usual mob violence.

On 7 October, the Lebanese Army raided the apartments of around 70 Syrian, Egyptian and Sudanese workers living in Geitawi and another Christian neighbourhood in Beirut, Mar Mikhael, late at night. One week earlier, on 1 October, soldiers stormed a construction site where migrants worked and slept in the adjacent Ashrafieyeh neighbourhood, according to residents who toldHuman Rights Watch (HRW) they “heard screams from the building”. Several `mukhtars’, administrators of the neighbourhood, reportedly issued a statementencouraging more such raids.

On 17 October, in the coastal neighbourhood of Ramlet al-Baydah, a mob of more than 20 Lebanese men attacked Syrian workers with knives and sticks, injuring 10 people.

Targeting Syrian Sunni dissidents?

The military defended its operation in Geitawi, claiming it was responding to increased complaints about sexual harassment and crimes committed by foreign workers. Lebanese residents in the area blame Syrian workers for thefts, sexual harassment, fights and even murders.

The army said it detained 11 people, but HRW only witnessed the arrest of African migrants who presumably did not have legal residency documents. The army has not confirmed who was arrested or why. But according to HRW, the evidence against them is scarce and the military operation looked more like collective punishment than proper policing.

“No clear investigation has been carried out. Why didn’t the army look for specific suspects?” said Beirut-based Nadim Houry, deputy director of the Middle Eastern division of HRW. “We advocate the rule of law and police enforcement, not this kind of mob violence.”

The army also argued it was checking work permits, but Syrians are allowed to work in Lebanon without papers, as per a longstanding unwritten agreement.

Ahmad*, a Syrian tailor in his thirties, who arrived from Hama several years ago, said not a single Syrian was arrested on specific charges. Instead, he said, soldiers beat the Syrians, including minors, for nearly five hours, using electric shock batons until 2am. “They didn’t allow us to talk and started beating us straight away,” he said. He still bears the scars of the beating, a large haematoma covering half of his back.

Sectarian motives?

Syrians say they believe they were victims of a factional and sectarian army.

“While they were beating us, they asked us: ‘Don’t you know these punishments from the time you served in the Syrian army? Or are you with the [rebel] Free Syrian Army?’” said Ahmad. “They even checked our names to single out the Sunnis and, judging from their dialect, we suspect they were Alawis from Jebel Mohsen,” he said, referring to a neighbourhood in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli inhabited by people of the same sect as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“The Lebanese military [intelligence] leadership is controlled by Christians and Shias and both sects are worried by the growing presence of the Syrian Sunni opposition in Lebanon,” explained Khaled*, a Syrian activist from Hama, who arrived at the building just after the 7 October raid to check on friends. “The operation was a message to Syrians: ‘Don’t think you’re protected; we know where you are’.”

Ahmad said the army took notes about where the migrants worked and for whom. “The army came with the intention of recording our names and checking if there was someone wanted in Syria,” he suggested.

“Politics are always behind these aggressions, even if they tell you it was all about harassments,” said Chehayed, of the Anti-Racism Movement. She compared it to an incident last November, when Lebanese Armenians assaulted Syrian Kurds in an Armenian majority neighbourhood in the suburbs of Beirut for their role, she said, in the Armenian genocide under the Ottomans.

Others dispute this version of events, saying the army did indeed round up suspects and ask Lebanese women to identify those who were guilty of harassment.

Nevertheless, observers are more hesitant to confirm a political agenda. “Two months ago we documented an instance where the army rounded up Syrian workers, looking for someone who had purchased a satellite device,” admitted HRW’s Houry, “but I think in Geitawi, it was more of a provocation than a political interrogation: if it was purely political they wouldn’t have rounded up also Egyptians and Sudanese.”

The Syrians, Ahmad and Khaled, disagreed, saying the round-up of other nationalities was “a cover for the real aim of the operation.”

Double-victims

Some residents of Geitawi show no prejudice against Syrians and they reject the fabrication of an easy scapegoat.

“There is no problem with Syrians. The scoundrels [responsible for theft and harassment] come from all sorts of countries: Sudan, Sri Lanka, Egypt,” said Rami al-Abyad, a barber in his sixties. “Not all the migrants are bullies.”

Even Ahmad, the Syrian tailor who was beaten, pointed to the good relations he has always had with his Lebanese landlords: “The house-owners were upset by the military operation and they even hid some Egyptians in their apartments.” Others don’t conceal their politically biased racism against Syrians.

“The irony is that many of these workers support the Syrian opposition,” said HRW’s Houry. “They have always been double victims: the regime didn’t offer them job opportunities and in Lebanon they were seen as part of the Syrian occupation, even if Beirut has been rebuilt on cheap Syrian labour.”

Local landlords are also profiting from the increased Syrian presence, Lebanese residents admitted.

The untouchable army

HRW is calling for a transparent investigation into the 7 October raid, but the army said any possible violation would be dealt with internally. The Ministry of Defence did not respond to IRIN’s request for information.

“There is a [lack of] accountability of all security forces, including the army,” said Houry. As the only respected security force in Lebanon amid many sectarian militias, the army is considered something of a sacred, less-easily criticized institution.

Syrian workers who appeared on TV to comment on the raid say they have been threatened by the military, but feel they have no recourse, given the links between large parts of the Lebanese government and their ally in Damascus.

“Since the revolution started, no one defends us and I cannot go to the Syrian embassy to complain about what happened,” said Ahmad.

*not a real name

 

 

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Tripoli (Lebanon) and the repercussions of the Syrian uprising

A long analysis I wrote for IRIN on Tripoli’s clashes between the Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and its Alawi  ‘counterpart’ Jabal Mohsen.

Analysis: Bound by conflict, the Syrian-Lebanon crisis

tabbaneh mohsen

TRIPOLI, LEBANON, 25 June 2012 (IRIN) – For more than a generation, the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli has been a divided city, home to most of Lebanon’s Shia Alawi community, but also a stronghold of Sunni conservatism.
The two sects, in their respective neighbourhoods of Jebel Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh, have been at odds since the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, with hundreds dying in the worst bloodshed in 1986. The road separating the two entrenched factions – appropriately called Syria Street – is the only demarcation line that still exists in Lebanon 22 years after the war ended.

In recent months, the outbreak of conflict in Syria and the influx of thousands of Syrian refugees into Lebanon has renewed and increased those tensions between Shia Alawis generally supportive of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Sunni sympathizers of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the opposition.

More than 30 Lebanese from both sides have been killed in fighting between the two communities since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. While a fragile ceasefire in Tripoli – agreed in early June – seems to be generally holding, sporadic clashes happen on a daily basis and it is common to see civilians carrying weapons.

While there are clear risks of Lebanon being caught up in the Syrian conflict, the reverse is also true: Syrian antagonists are equally in danger of being dragged into age-old Lebanese sectarianism.

The Syrian conflict has already killed at least 10,000, according to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and displaced as many as 500,000 people inside the country, according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and another 86,000 are registered refugees in neighbouring countries. Basic services are not running properly, and the economy has been hard hit, not only by the conflict, but by far-reaching economic sanctions, pushing up unemployment and the price of food. Lebanon, which has already suffered decades of war, is rife with poverty and political instability. Both countries have much to lose.

Socio-economic factors and politics

Sectarianism and political antagonism in Tripoli have already had very real consequences for ordinary people on both sides.

Mahmud, a local vendor in the alleyways of Tripoli’s market, points to the Alawi-owned shop next door, recently set on fire.

“The owner of this burnt shop paid the price of feuds between rogues,” he explains.

“If these unbelievers want Bashar al-Assad, they can go to Syria,” bursts out Omar, a long-bearded youngster, when asked about the shop. The risks for civilians here are large, with some Sunnis openly admitting that Alawi civilians could be further targeted.

“Now they don’t dare to leave their mountain, we would beat them again,” boasts Faysal, a talkative shopkeeper in Tripoli’s market, who praises his cousin fighting in Bab al-Tabbaneh. “Those Alawis who are still in the city centre are Syrian workers, not Lebanese,” he continues. “No one would harm them. But in case of a civil war, they will be killed, because wars know no ethical rules.”

If history is anything to go by, those made destitute by the clashes are more likely to be dragged into violence. As the International Crisis Group put it in abriefing in October 2010, for many Sunni youngsters in Bab-Tebbaneh, joining one of the many Islamist groups which have spread relatively freely since Syria’s military withdrawal provides an attractive alternative to idleness and social failure.”

Lebanese politicians have been accused of exploiting the frustration of these poor neighbourhoods, supplying them with weapons.
“External actors transferred their conflicts there [in Tripoli], backing local fighters in a struggle that was less costly, and more easily managed, than would be open warfare in the capital…, just as… local fighters use their struggles… to attract important outside support,” the 2010 Crisis Group briefing said.

Distrust in Lebanese army, intelligence

An enormous banner hanging in one of Tripoli’s main squares, al-Tell, reads: “In defence of the security and stability of Tripoli”. The whole city is plastered with these kinds of slogans. But behind the confident veneer, some residents are skeptical of the army’s ability to maintain the peace.

From behind a small stand on a street corner, a coffee vendor named Khaled says he doesn’t have much faith in the military.

“What do you want them to do? They stand aside!” he says laughing.

Weapons and Koranic commentaries pack the living room in the flat of Sheikh Bilal al-Masri, a Sunni leader fighting on Bab al-Tabbaneh’s front line. He says the army – which usually limits itself to standing between both sides – started doing its job when, on one occasion recently, it responded to gunfire coming from Alawi-majority Jebel Mohsen. But he stresses that the military remains divided by political rivalries.

Residents of Jebel Mohsen are also skeptical of the army’s ability to ensure their security.

“To us, [weapons] are more important than food,” Rifa’at ‘Eid, head of the pro-Assad Arab Democratic Party (ADP), told the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar. “We have confidence in the army, but it cannot ensure our safety under certain conditions.”

The Lebanese army is generally considered a “spectator” in armed clashes, because party militias such as Hezbollah are much better equipped, and because Lebanese politics are so divided. Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s current government, as well as the Military Intelligence (mukhabarat al-jaysh) and theGeneral Security (al-amn al-‘aam) are believed to be aligned with Damascus, whereas the Internal Security Forces (quwwat al-amn al-dakhili) and its Information Branch (far’ al-ma’lumat) are closer to the opposition Saudi-backed 14 March coalition, analysts say.

Syrian opposition and Lebanese Sunnis: between sympathy and military alliance

In Tripoli’s government hospital, the tension is palpable. A nurse at the hospital showed IRIN bullet holes on the wall of one of the rooms overlooking Jebel Mohsen, suggesting the targets were the Sunni Syrian patients. The latter do not dare poke their heads out the window, for fear of being shot. The 50 Syrians in the hospital claim to be civilians, but the line between the armed opposition and the peace demonstrators is increasingly blurred.

Still, Tripoli remains one of the safest destinations in Lebanon for mostly Sunni Syrian refugees, due to the Sunni support for the uprising; and Lebanon has been a transit route for relief supplies into Syria. But analysts are increasingly questioning whether the ties between Lebanese and Syrian Sunnis go beyond mutual sympathy to military cooperation.
Samir*, a 23-old Syrian from Homs, now a member of a Syrian grouping of humanitarian and civil society organizations in Lebanon called Watan (Homeland), says there are clear boundaries to his involvement in the Bab al-Tabbaneh-Jebel Mohsen clashes: “If a Lebanese civil war breaks out, we will leave. We’re not here to export our revolution. We need Lebanon as a basis for our activities.”

Walid*, 27, who works for another humanitarian group, the Coordination Committees for Syrian Refugees’ Affairs in Lebanon, holds different views on the relations between Syrians and Bab al-Tabbaneh: “I wanted to volunteer as a fighter in Bab al-Tabbaneh, but they rejected me.

“I wanted to do it, because the Alawis from Jebel Mohsen were involved in killing demonstrators in my city, Homs,” explains Walid. “They came to support Alawis in Homs and slaughtered our people.”

Al-Masri, the Sunni leader, confirmed having turned away Syrian volunteers. But he says the links between pro-Syrian government forces on both sides of the border are stronger. He says Lebanese Alawis are supplied with weapons and supported on the ground by Syrian and Hezbollah officers.

Pro-Syria media give a different view of the situation, with an article in pro-Hezbollah Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar accusing Riyadh al-Asaad, commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army, of visiting Tripoli to survey the territory, looking for an “ideal buffer zone”.

Al-Masri denies both the existence of a 300-man Lebanese-Sunni unit within the FSA in Syria (as recently reported by Nicholas Blanford, Middle East analyst and author) and the presence of FSA camps in Lebanon. “We sent our men to Syria and they were rejected. They told us: ‘We don’t need you, but give us weapons, if it’s possible’.” He does admit to smuggling weapons and food to the FSA across the Lebanese border, by bribing Syrian officials.

Both the FSA and the pro-Syrian alignment led by Hezbollah have their reasons to deny having trespassed national borders. The first fears being blamed for igniting the existing tensions within Lebanon; the latter wants to prevent a new explosion of Sunni resentment. In a nutshell, no one wants to be blamed for a new Lebanese civil war.

But in the absence of a quick settlement with Jebel Mohsen, tensions in both countries are becoming increasingly intertwined, with analysts predicting that Lebanese Sunnis will eventually make use of their brethren across the border to fight their domestic enemies, namely Hezbollah. Already, tit-for-tat kidnappings have blurred the lines between the two conflicts, with Syrian Sunnis involved in kidnapping Lebanese Shias; Syrian officers involved in kidnapping Lebanese Sunnis; and Lebanese Sunnis involved in kidnapping Lebanese Alawis.

Who benefits from the clashes?

Analysts say both sides in Lebanon have something to gain from the clashes.

The anti-Syrian Future Movement (FM), headed by the former Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad al-Hariri, forced out of office in January 2011, has used the clashes as an opportunity to call for the current Prime Minister’s resignation, arguing he has not been able to ensure Tripoli’s security.

But in the eyes of Bab al-Tabbaneh’s fighters, as well as many analysts, the Syrian government has more to gain.

“The first interest of the Syrian regime is distracting the attention of the media from what’s going on in Syria,” al-Masri says. “Secondly, Bashar wants to pressure the international community by saying he’s capable of causing a civil war in Lebanon.”

Both Bab al-Tabbaneh’s fighters and ADP’s spokespersons told the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star that Hezbollah is supplying weapons to both Alawis and Sunnis in Tripoli, suggesting that the goal is to destabilize Lebanon – regardless of the victor – in order to draw attention away from the situation in Syria.

*not real names

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Lebanon, Syria | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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