Clashes in Tripoli. Will There be a "Victory"?

This is not a post about right and wrong. I’m not here to ask who is to blame for the fights in Tripoli, or to rant about the powerless government and the sheer madness of urban populations lobbing grenades and missiles at each other. This post is simply to ask a question many of you are asking: Is there a point in this struggle? Is there a desired outcome in the mind of any of the two parties or is this just a mindless brawl?

One of the most shared tweets on Tripoli’s clashes last night was this one , which translates roughly as:

“This sounds like a battle with a decisive outcome in mind.”

Can we really have a “decisive outcome” in the clash between Bab el Tebbeneh and Jabal Mohsen or is the entire fight “pointless”, to use the word of prime minister Mikati? (المعارك العبثية)

The Tebbaneh mob vs the Jabal Mohsen fortress

To understand the nature of this fight, one must take a closer look at the two warring sides. On one hand, we have the Sunnis in Bab el Tebbaneh who support the Syrian revolution and hate the Assad regime to the bone. They are motivated by TV footage coming from Syria that shows the regime slaughtering their co-religionists. They are poor, but they have the will to fight and are generously armed with light weapons. They are also more numerous than their opponents and don’t follow a single chain of command.

On the other side we have the Alawis in the Jabal. They support the Syrian president Assad so much that their streets are covered with his portraits. They have a small population compared to that of the Sunnis, but they have the strategic advantage of being on a hill towering over their opponents, making their location ideal for snipers and unwelcoming to “invaders”. They are well entrenched and have access to heavy weapons, provided to them by the Assad regime (and some say by Hezbollah) to protect this strategic outpost in hostile territory. Some cheeky commentators have implied that Jabal Mohsen is the Israel of Tripoli, ie a small state of a religious minority surrounded by enemies, which explains why it is armed to the teeth by a large protector. The fighters in Jabal Mohsen are under a unified command structure.

Motivation and deterrence

The Alawi community of Jabal Mohsen has so far survived the encroachment of the Sunnis and kept its cultural and political singularity despite its small size. It has done so through a combination of powerful weapons and the regular intervention of the Lebanese army to separate the two sides (which cost the Army sacrifices of its own). The balance of power has long been stable because the Sunnis didn’t have enough motivation to attack, and because the Alawis have a strong power of deterrence. But there are now reasons to believe that these two factors, motivation and deterrence, are shifting. The balance of power may well be altered soon.

First, motivation. To the Sunnis, Jabal Mohsen is starting to look like Damascus and Aleppo. These Syrian cities were long seen as impenetrable fortresses of the Assad regime, but are now unraveling thanks to relentless attacks by the Syrian opposition fighters. The Arab Spring contagion may have gotten into the hearts of the Bab el Tebbaneh fighters and convinced them that Jabal Mohsen may not be so invincible after all.

Deterrence: A weakening Assad regime may decide to focus on his own survival and ditch outposts like Jabal Mohsen. Arming Alawis in Lebanon may slip down his priorities’ list, rendering the hill more exposed to attacks. Jabal Mohsen may have enough ammunition to sustain it for the time being, but that could not last long.

“Victory” through decapitation?

What can constitute a “victory” for the Bab el Tebbaneh fighters? A good guess would be the capture of Refaat Ali Eid, the outspoken son of the founder of the “Arab Democratic Party” (ADP), a staunchly pro-Assad Alawi party which dominates Jabal Mohsen and oversees military operations against Bab el Tebbaneh. Eid had previously announced that the only solution for the problems in Tripoli would be the return of Syrian troops to the city, sparking fury with the Sunnis who haven’t yet forgotten the shenanigans of these troops in their country. A capture of Refaat Eid and the neutralization of the ADP would be a strong blow to the Assad regime and its Alawi allies in Tripoli. That could even put an end to the fighting between Jabal Mohsen and Bab el Tebbaneh.

But that could very well be a pipe dream. Eid has powerful allies in Lebanon and he will not go down easily. Moreover, Lebanon still has legitimate authorities and you can’t just go around kidnapping and killing party leaders. This is why the Army was swiftly deployed around Eid’s house to protect him.

Perhaps Mikati was right after all. Maybe it was all for nothing. All the lives lost, all the livelihoods stalled, All the energy spent, businesses wrecked and nerves frayed, maybe all were wasted in a war that was, in the end, pointless.

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  • Anonymous

    Wasnt the entire war in Lebanon “for nothing” specially in how it was absurdly stopped(wont say ended coz obviously it hasnt) in 1990?
    The clashes have no clear objective nor will they end with a decisive outcome. They’re only meant to destabilize the entire country.

    • Mustapha

      Well, I guess the main nuance is this: Was there an intentional plan to destabilise the country, or was the destabilisation the side result of regional “projects” to expand influence in the country?

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  • Habib

    Thanks for the post. Question. Could you elaborate further on:

    “The Alawi community of Jabal Mohsen has so far survived the encroachment of the Sunnis and kept its cultural and political singularity … through a combination of powerful weapons and the regular intervention of the Lebanese army”

    How has the community been threatened in such ‘cultural’ ways? Can we really assume this is a cultural battle or is it more of a war between individuals and the people on their payroll?

    Also how does the Jabal maintain its supply lines if it is supposedly surrounded?

    Thanks again for raising these questions.

    • Mustapha

      I guess by “culture” I simply mean political culture, ie the iconic displays of subservience to Syria and Hezbollah..etc, which is completely out of place in a geographic area so close to Tripoli, a bastion of anti-Assad emotions.

      Also, Alawism is an offshoot of Shiaa Islam, and if you asked many in Tripoli, they will tell you that they’ve never met a Alawi or a Shiaa. Some of them even believe that they’re not Muslim or that they pray in different kinds of mosques.. If anything, this is an indication of the lack of cultural (religious?) exchange between the populations..

      • Habib

        Yes I don’t doubt that there is little exchange–of course there could be some. But the point is, is this a fight against culture or physical displays or are the fighters motivated by more tangible political gains and to what extent are the goals of these fighters representative of the population at large. Are we even equipped to answer that question?

  • Old Hand

    Sorry Mustapha, your questions are interesting but the wrong ones at this time.

    The Lebanese have been asking the wrong questions for years which is why we have NO answer.

    Question: Where the hell is the army and the state and who or what is preventing them from doing their job? This was valid when the Palestinians were running amok in Lebanon, when thugs were destroying and looting dowtown Beirut, when the Airport road closes every other day, and when people are dying in Tripoli.

    No one wants to ask that simple question. No, we want to analyze conspiracies, and international politics, and say that we are special that rules in Leb are different, how cute….

    As to your line: “Moreover, Lebanon still has legitimate authorities and you can’t just go around kidnapping and killing party leaders. ” Bwahhahhhaaahahhah!!! Are you frigging kidding me?????


    • Mustapha

      There is this Mystique around the Lebanese Army, that they are somehow above the fray and manned by angels, that many people just enjoy perpetuating. The truth is, the Army is part of the people, subject to their same political biases and emotions. You can not get the Army to arrest Hezbollah members because many soldiers would rather obey Sayyed Nasrallah than their direct commander. Likewise, you cannot ask a soldier from Akkar to shoot at the Sunni Tabbaneh people because in their eyes and the eyes of their families these are the victims of the Alawis..

      That is one reason why the Army keeps a neutral posture. The other reason is that once the Army is perceived to be biased with one group or the other, it will unwittingly become part of the conflict and everyone in a uniform will become a legitimate target in the eyes of those feeling slighted. We were very close to this dangerous point recently when the soldiers shot at the Sheikh in Akkar. It took huge efforts by the politicians to fix that problem.

      • OldHand

        Thx but still no answer.

        1) How have other nations solved this problem (Effective army)? ,We are not unique.

        2) Are you saying the army/state will never be able to arrest anyone of substance? Then we should stop about a nation and about a state and consider outsourcing security or taqsim or…..

  • moodz

    I can also argue the question of the Lebanese state legitimacy. Case in point: the Mikdads have openly and directly confessed to what is legally viewed as a crime on national and regional TV: they have kidnapped some people. The police know where the Mikdads live, and they don’t even need an investigation as the confession was aired live. The very least would be to arrest these persons, and let them speak from prison if they have something to say. The legitimacy has long gone my friend

    • Mustapha


  • 3asseh (@3asseh)

    I highly appreciate the first part of your post where you describe the current situation.
    I totally agree with your conclusion : pointless battle, no possible victory unless at some stage an “ethnic” cleansing gets a green light which I cannot imagine will ever happen.

    That being said…

    Concerning deterrence : it’s a strategy that can be true if the Jabal guys where just showing (on tv?) how much arms they have. Actually using those arms and ammunitions is non-sense for them given their geographical position (surrounded from all sides?)

    Concerning motivation : you’re being nice with the Tebbaneh guys when referring to the Arab spring as a motivation. Gives a peaceful flavor when we talk about “spring” 😉

    Thanks for the post anyways

  • Mustapha

    Good point about the deterrence, but also consider that it is in their interest to play victims to the public opinion. They cannot afford to be both powerful and callous… The only people they need to deter are would-be attackers..

  • Rubber Ducky

    I’ll give you the simpler version: There is a childish hatred between two sets of people based on an imaginary dichotomy when in fact the two sides are ultimately the same side (poor marginalized youths), and some parties are manipulating them and using their lives as chips in an absurd poker game

  • LebanesePatriot

    Dear Mustapha,

    Did you forget what happened in the eighties when the Allawies from Jabal Mohsen did the Tebeneh massacre with the assistance of the Syian Army?

    This is what the Allawies considered victory at that time. As for the Sunnis, they consider revenge as victory.

    I assume this is what the two parties consider victory. The question is will the army allow anything like that to happen now? no body knows. They already allowed the assassination of the sheik in Akkar.

  • Samer

    I remember 3 or 4 years ago, long before the Syrian uprinsing, and I was on vacation in Tripoli. A taxidriver from Bab al tebbaneh explained the fighting between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al tebbaneh with that on “saturdays when people are drunk somebody shoots around of bullets and it all starts”. To me the conflict seems to be less about Syria and more about rivalry between local thugs.

  • gk

    You are talking about whole Lebanon not just Tripoli!

  • The_Escritora

    Thank you for this insightful post. Let’s keep in mind that the historical “animosity” between Sunnis and Alawis in Tripoli” (call it prejudice or stereotyping if you want) never turned into armed clashes before the Syrian regime armed and manipulated the Alawi minority to its own ends during the civil war. It might be also useful to look at the history of Tebbeneh and the reasons why this underprivileged “misery-stan” has always been a “rogue” or “outlaw” neighbourhood. In 1983, French sociologist Michel Seurat interviewed for the last time Khalil Akkawi, Abu Arabi, the islamist leader of Tebbeneh, who was later assassinated by the Syrian regime. Akkawi’s last words were, “ma fi dawleh. Ya reit fi dawleh.” (There’s no state here. I wish there was one.)