Thursday, May 30, 2013

Tripoli's politicians no longer control the street: sources

Beirut: Tripoli's latest round of clashes over the last week have become more intense than in the past. According to multiple reputable sources, politicians have lost control of leaders on the Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh side that they used to fund. This could be one reason why Tripoli's MPs were unable to secure a ceasefire last week. The Daily Star reported that despite attempts at a ceasefire last night, snipers from Tabbaneh fired at the Alawite side of Jabal Mohsen, injuring two people.

Current Calm

Yesterday, during the day Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen appeared relatively normal. The Lebanese Armed Forces' (LAF) 12th brigade remained deployed but residents were on the streets and shops were open. A prominent militia leader in Tabbaneh named Ziad Alloukeh said that he expected fighting to continue soon and clashes were on hold so residents could collect food and other supplies after being stuck at home for over a week.

Alloukeh also took the opportunity to denounce all of Tripoli's politicians and members of parliament. He tossed out the usual caveats about the guys in Tabbaneh buying their own weapons and not getting help from the state or any other actor.

Alloukeh is known on the streets for having been one of Future MP Mohammad Kabbara's representative on the ground in Tabbaneh. Political sources have also confirmed that this was once the case but no longer holds true. Alloukeh is no longer under Kabbara's control and neither are other street leaders in Tabbaneh, according to political sources both on and off the record.

Stories vary about whether the politicians have cut funding voluntarily or if the street leaders spurned them first, but what is clear is that mid-caliber weapons are appearing and the cost of daily fighting (amount of ammunition, type of weapons & ammunition, etc.) is increasing.

I've also been told by a local source that street leaders who struggled to get by in the past are now holding elaborate dinners for local figures.

The Emir of Tripoli?

Word on the street is that many of the major street leaders in Tabbaneh have united and pledged their allegiance to Hossam Sabbagh (trying to find a video to confirm this).

Sabbagh is a wanted man by authorities in Lebanon & Australia (both countries where he holds citizenship), is thought to have fought with the Nusra front in Syria, and is now believed to be Nusra's representative in northern Lebanon. He's also reportedly fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq and I'm told he was recently declared something to the extent of the "Emir of the Islamic State of Northern Lebanon". For more on him check out the Daily Star's article from January here.

As the article says, when Sabbagh used to attend meetings at MP Kabbara's house authorities wouldn't touch him, most likely for fear of the reaction it would cause among Islamist factions. I was told recently that Sabbagh has since stopped attending these meetings and sends representatives instead.

Where as Ziad Alloukeh and Saad al-Masri's (another well known militia leader) offices are known to everyone in Tabbaneh, my contacts inside said they couldn't tell me where he is because "even we don't know."

My contacts tried to arrange to get me a meeting with him for the next day or two but considering Sabbagh has yet to speak to any press the chances of that are slim.

New Strategy

On the Tabbaneh side of the conflict locals said a new strategy has been adopted. They said fighters are not allowing Alawites (the sect to which Bashar al-Assad belongs) from Jabal Mohsen to buy bread and other basic goods in the hope that they will become desperate and turn on Arab Democratic Party (ADP) leader Rifaat Eid.

During peace times in Tripoli, Alawites from the Jabal come down to Tabbaneh and shop for food, clothes, and other goods. "Seventy percent of the Alawites are good people," said one fighter last week, adding that the only grievance he has was against Eid's ADP. Many residents of Tabbaneh believe that with Eid gone the fighting will stop and the two communities could coexist.

Yesterday, Omar AlKalouti (photojournalist) and I made our way over to speak to the LAF's 12th Brigade. Near a strip of closed shops that borders the front line, Syria Street, one soldier showed us two shops that had been burnt down just a few days before.

"These were shops owned by Alawites," the soldier said. "Don't take pictures."


Theories as to why this round of fighting started and why it has carried on longer and heavier than others are rampant. Ziad Alloukeh, the militia leader, believes it was to occupy Tripoli fighters in order to keep them from going to fight in Qusair. He said there were between 200-300 fighters from Tripoli currently in Syria. A Salafi fighter, Abu Baraa, said the figure was closer to around 60 last week.

But if Alloukeh's theory was correct then why would Tabbaneh continue to refute attempts at organizing a ceasefire?


The fighting has calmed for now but the general sentiment is that the calm won't last. Tripoli residents, inside Tabbaneh and out, say the current situation is of greater cause for concern than in the past and threatens to ferment in neighborhoods that once saw nothing more than occasional spats. If local politicians have abandoned or been shunned then it indicates that local militia leaders have found other means of funding this never-ending battle. It also means local politicians can't reel in their gangs when they feel fighting is getting out of control.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Clashes in Tripoli linked to Qusayr

Zouk Mikayel, Lebanon: Relatively light clashes took place between Tripoli neighborhoods Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen today after a brutal night of fighting that included the firing of over 47 mortars.

Today, saw only occasional spats of sniper fire, machine gun fire, and the occasional mortar. Fighters in Bab al-Tabbaneh however said they are expecting heavy fighting to continue tonight.

The fighting this time around is intrinsically linked to the battle for Qusayr in neighboring Syria, say sources. Abu al-Baraa, a fighter stationed on the front line, said that "as long as Qusayr is surrounded, we have to deploy around Jabal Mohsen."

Abu al-Baraa gave the impression that what is happening in Tabbaneh is basically a direct retaliation to what is happening there. By surrounding the small population of Jabal Mohsen the Sunni fighters in Tabbaneh feel they are protecting their fellow Sunnis in Qusayr from being slaughtered by Hezbollah and the Syrian Army.

He added that between 60-70 fighters from Tripoli are in Syria now. Two of those are from his own brigade. Supposedly, a group of fighters from Tripoli tried to go through Tal Khalakh to make their way to Qusayr just the other day. "They couldn't make it," said Abu al-Baraa, there was too much fighting.

As we sat on the stairs of his building Abu al-Baraa showed us his Russian Kalashnikov, a recent purchase for $1500, he said. "You see these?" he asked, pointing to thin yellow bullets. "These are Syrian bullets. They're no good, just like the regime is no good."

To date, every fighter I've spoken with says they buy their own weapons and ammo. Abu al-Baraa admitted that Sheikh Salem al-Rafei occasionally distributes bullets but no arms.

Yesterday, Saad al-Masri, a respected militia leader and brother of the slain militia leader Khodr al-Masri, returned from Turkey where "he was on vacation," according to Abu Hasan, a deputy of Ziad Alloukeh.

Rumor has it that Masri and other militia leaders are receiving funding directly from foreign intelligence services. This is something I will investigate further...

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Clashes in Tripoli

Beirut: Clashes in Tripoli between neighborhoods divided by their opinion of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad show no sign of a hiatus as the death toll rises to eight. The Lebanese Army, Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen have all lost people in the last three days.

Local residents reported this evening that sounds of gunfire and mortars hitting closer to residential areas outside of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen where the fighting usually takes place. Local TV station LBC reported earlier today that Imam Radwan Al Asmar of the Jihad Mosque was killed by sniper fire. The death of a religious figure in Tabbaneh threatens to further rile up the men on the street.

Yesterday, an Irish photographer, a British journalist, a fixer and I entered Tabbaneh.

We wandered through the alleys of Tabbaneh and the man-made passageways that cut through buildings in order to avoid alleys susceptible to sniper fire. Along the way we met a few different groups of fighters. One grizzly fighter with a neatly-trimmed beard and backpack filled with mortars said he was in Tabbaneh briefly to recruit men to fight in Syria. I guess he joined in the Tabbaneh feud for kicks.

We eventually found our way into the apartment of Bilal al-Masri, a media-friendly shiekh who lives on the frontline known as Syria Street. The three journos sat on the edge of his couch (if we leaned back we'd have been sitting on top of a rifle and a smaller fire arm) as he lectured us on how our Western governments have been failing the Syrian rebels. I'm not sure if he knew we don't have much sway with Obama, Cameron and the lads on that subject or many others.

As he lectured us, the ringing sound of gunfire burst into the room through the open door and windows. We were itching to get a look at it but every time we tried to politely excuse ourselves our friend the shiekh insisted he finish his discourse.

After saying goodbye to the shiekh we carried on to a block of streets littered with armed men. Some were tattooed looking thugs while others were dressed in an Islamic fashion. Here we heard the constant rattle of gunfire as fighters took turns popping out from behind building corners to fire off a few rounds. Oddly, I can't pinpoint one time where gunfire came in the direction of the fighters near us, though an empty shell dispensed from a Tabbaneh fighter firing a few feet from us bounced and hit the photographer in his bald head.

Whenever faced with the query of which local figure they answer to, the fighters said no one. They were adamant that they bought their own rifles and their own ammunition. They said a basic rifle costs $2,000. Not taking into account more pricy weaponry, of which many were on display, more than 75% of households in Tabbaneh make under $500 a month. They did however to fire off a few rounds so we could take photographs of them in action. Since a box of ammo is 35,000 LL (around $23) it would only cost us $300-400. We were told that local media often takes such deals but we still declined.

At one point, fighters and locals started screaming that the army was coming and began running for cover. At this point, the photographer and I looked at each other and asked, "Should we run?!"

Our fixer was walking behind us in a cool strut and never changed expression. The photographer and I exchanged glances maybe three or four times, both of us sporting a smile of stupidity and confusion, before we jogged into a shop.

The fighters were under the impression that the army was trying to overrun Tabbaneh and wipe out all the fighters and Islamic factions. In fact, the bulk of the fighting over the last few days seems to have been between the men of Tabbaneh and the army with a sprinkling of sniper fire from Jabal Mohsen mixed in.

It's a widely circulated rumor among the Sunni community in Lebanon that the Army targets Sunnis. This rumor has spread deep throughout Tabbaneh and now this idea is ingrained in the minds of the fighters there. I've also heard rumors that Tabbaneh is sick of the media. The locals feel that nothing has changed despite dozens of media outlets frequenting Tabbaneh over the last year.

Yesterday, we left because as the conflict heated up so did the tempers of armed men. Upon seeing our friend's camera, one fighter became confrontational and said that if any photos were taken he would break the camera.

A friend from Tripoli told me this evening that for numerous reasons "the fighters are out of control." As of now I'm supposed to head back up tomorrow morning. Will add more then...

PS--tried to add photos but not working right now. Will try again later