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.
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.
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.