by Mordechai Kedar
As a result of the bloody events in Syria beginning in March 2011, Lebanon has become a place of refuge for Syrians who live near the border between the two countries. This open border, through which for years, Hizbullah has been transferring from Syria anything it desired, has now become an escape route for those Syrians who oppose the regime and seek shelter in Lebanon, even if only temporarily, from the cruelty of the "Shabikha", the murderous gangs of the Asad regime. The Syrian army, despite the fact that it feels "at home" in Lebanon, usually refrains from pursuing Syrians who have found sanctuary there, so as not to offend the European countries, especially France, which see Lebanon as their "back yard". Only in a very few cases did a military force cross the border into Lebanon in order to apprehend refugees who oppose the regime, and in a few cases have even shot Syrian canons into Lebanese villages where some Syrians had found shelter and sanctuary.
The society in Lebanon is polarized regarding the events in Syria: the Shi'ite Hizbollah, the main power in the state, actively supports Asad, and has sent more than a few of its soldiers, mainly snipers, to fight those citizens of Syria who are rebelling against the regime. Those who are opposed to Hizbollah, the "March 14 Coalition", headed by Sa'ad al-Hariri, hold clear anti-Syrian positions. In the background there is always the possibility that the Syrian regime will collapse. If this occurs, the fear is that Hizbollah will quickly take over Lebanon and prevent the opposition from taking advantage of the weakness that may follow the loss of Syrian support. Nasrallah, of course, totally denies that he has any such intentions. As long as the internal argument was conducted verbally, the words did not represent an immediate threat to the stability of the state.
However, lately an internal confrontation has developed, regarding the active support of the Sunni Muslim insurgents in Syria. For a long time rumors have been circulating about ships that arrive in the middle of moonless nights to locations near the recesses of the Lebanese coast; and boats with people in black clothing and covered faces who race from the shore towards the ships. The people clothed in black unload wooden crates full of "all good things", and then the boats disappear back into the darkness from which they emerged. The crates are brought into Syria, where their contents - weapons and ammunition - serve the Free Syrian Army. The rumors about the boats were not substantiated until this month. In the beginning of May, in Lebanese territorial waters, the Lebanese army apprehended a ship with the name "Lotef Allah 2", which had departed from Libya and moored in Alexandria on its way to Lebanon. On this ship, a number of containers with light weapons were seized, but there were also a few French rocket launchers that had been sent last year to the insurgents in Libya. There were also explosives, and the whole shipment was sent by a Syrian company. The loading document, of course, did not reveal the actual contents of the shipment. Twenty one employees of the ship were arrested, but it is not clear what they knew about their deadly cargo.
The Lebanese army must certainly have known about the ship and its cargo and it is safe to assume that they got their information from an intelligence organization acting in cooperation with the Syrian regime, Iran or Russia, who were quick to register a complaint with the Security Council of the UN about the smuggling of weapons into Syria from the neighboring countries. Russia and Iran are very concerned about the increasing strength of the Free Syrian Army, which, thanks to the great number of weapons that flow to it, is recently more successful in fighting back and killing many Syrian soldiers. The seizure of the weapons in the port of Tripoli immediately raised the question in Lebanon: who was supposed to receive the weapons and transfer them to the Syrian insurgents?
The question was answered when on Shabbat, May 12, a twenty five year old man was arrested in Tripoli by the name of Shadi al-Mawlawi, along with five of his friends. The young man, a Lebanese Sunni and a member of a Salafi group, known as an activist working for the Syrian insurgents, was arrested when he returned from Syria on suspicion of assisting the insurgents and planning with them to transfer to them the weapons that had arrived by ship. From the moment that he was arrested, Tripoli has been in turmoil: The Al-Manar channel, mouthpiece of the spokesman for the Hizbollah Shi'ites, claims that the ship belongs to Al-Qaeda, and served as the connection between global jihad organizations and the Syrian insurgents, while al-Mawlawi's Sunni friends claim emphatically that he is simply a good young man, who - like many others - gave humanitarian support to Syrian refugees who managed to escape to Tripoli. The circumstances of his incarceration are interesting: according to some versions he was apprehended in the office of the Lebanese minister of the Treasury, Mahmud al-Safdi, in Tripoli, which brings up the possibility that al-Mawlawi might also have supported the Syrian insurgents monetarily, and that he was an emissary sent by members of the political establishment in Lebanon who are engaged in plotting against the Asad regime.
It's important to note that the body that carried out the arrest - the General Security agency - is an arm of the Lebanese regime, but every Lebanese citizen is aware that this organization takes instructions from Hizbollah, that is, from Hassan Nasrallah, who is doing everything is his power to support his good friend and avid admirer, Bashar al-Asad. It could even be that the demand to arrest Al-Mawlawi came straight from Damascus. The fact that al-Mawlawi is identified with a Salafi Bedouin group works against him, since the Salafis are perceived as a threat to the whole social and political order of the Arab and Islamic world, because they recognize no ruler but Allah, and believe that no legal framework that was determined by man can compete with the perfection that is Islamic Shari'a law.
The Barrel of Gunpowder
The arrest of Al-Mawlawi was enough to ignite one of the most sensitive areas in Lebanon, the arena of Tripoli. This city, the second largest in Lebanon, comprises several quarters, each of which hosts a distinct group: Muslims, Christians or Alawites. In the north of the city are two adjacent neighborhoods: Bab al-Tibbaneh, populated by Sunni Muslims, and above it Jabal Mohsen, an Alawite area The tension between these two sectors has existed for dozens of years, and the constant agitating factor is the way that each group relates to the Syrian regime: the Alawites support it heart and soul, while the Sunnis would do anything to get rid of it. And this political argument must be considered in the context of the religious background: The Alawites are perceived as non-Muslims. In fact, Ibn Taymiyya, the Muslim sage of the 14th century, wrote of them that they "akhfar min el-Yehud wal-nasara" ("are worse infidels than the Jews and the Christians"). He described precisely their treachery and the damage that they have caused to Islam, principally as a result of their cooperation with the Christian crusaders.
The negative perception of the Alawites has caused hundreds of years of persecution and oppression by the Muslims, especially during the period of the Ottoman Empire; therefore they traditionally live in the mountains, which affords them refuge and shelter from their Muslim enemies. In Western Syria they populate the Ansariyya Mountains, and their neighborhood in Tripoli is also built on a mountain, (Jabal Mohsen). The men are armed to the teeth and their houses are fortified. Despite the fact that they are a small minority of the residents of Tripoli, only 5 percent, their absolute number - 30 thousand - gives them a feeling of power, especially because the area is only 18 kilometers from the Syrian border.
After many years of conflicts between Muslims and Alawites in Tripoli, the "mitaq sharaf" (Covenant of Honor) was signed in 2008 between all of the groups in the city. According to the covenant, all disagreements must be solved peacefully. However in Lebanon, an agreement is honored just as long as it is in the interests of its parties to honor it, and the moment that one party stops being interested in it, the agreement becomes nothing more than a piece of paper. Ever since the bloody events broke out in Syria 14 months ago, a number of conflicts have erupted between the Muslims and the Alawites in Tripoli, because each community supports an opposite side of the Syrian equation. Each time conflicts erupt, they are stopped after a few days of street battles, some fatalities, a few dozen wounded, burned-out cars and ruined businesses. It could be that the current conflict will end in the same way, but it could also be that things may get out of control, because in Tripoli, there are those who are willing to gamble on the imminent collapse of the Alawite regime in Syria. Such a collapse will also cause the collapse of the support for the Alawite community in Tripoli and perhaps the time will come to "convince" them to flee to the North, to the Mountains of Ansariyya, the mountains where they came from long ago. They are aware of the miserable situation of the Alawite regime in Syria, so they defend themselves with violent acts, out of the Middle Eastern instinct to survive: "the best defense is a good offense".
In the current round of street battles in Tripoli, RPG launchers and machine guns have been used in addition to personal weapons. Snipers paralyzed the traffic in the streets in the north of the city, and the main route that leads northward to Syria was blocked. The Lebanese army was streaming armored personnel carriers and soldiers into the area, but the Sunni residents of Tripoli fear that the army, like the other branches of the regime, was acting in accordance with the dictates that come down from Damascus. The arrest of a group of Sunnis is perceived as crossing a red line, because the Sunni community is in a very precarious position, since the Shi'ite Hizbollah has become the strongest organization in Lebanon, stronger even than the official army of the state.
By Monday evening the conflicts had resulted in eight fatalities and about fifty wounded. In the quieter parts of the city the Sunnis organized a demonstration in support of Al-Mawlawi and his friends who had been arrested. They burned tires, blocked streets and set up protest tents, in keeping with the tradition of the "Arab Spring" of last year. The government, headed by Najib al-Mikati and President Michel Suleiman are exerting great efforts to calm the situation without causing more fatalities among the population, because Tripoli of today resembles a barrel of gunpowder waiting to explode - and that might ignite all of Lebanon.
The Writing on the Wall
The fragile situation in Lebanon is no surprise, and anyone who understands the internal situation in this country knows that it is living on borrowed time. The state comprises five groups: Christians, Druze, Alawites and Muslims, who are divided into Shi'ites and Sunnis. The constitution, which is supposed to have organized the division of powers between the various groups was written by the French, who established Lebanon as a state for the Christians, principally the Catholic Maronite tribe. Lebanon is a "human experiment", in which five Middle Eastern groups of humanity were divided up, a constitution was engineered for them that is contrary to their culture and it was hoped that the experiment will work. And indeed the arrangement worked for some years, with internal battles every few years, but the demography was stronger than all of the good intentions of the French: Instead of a state for the Maronites, Lebanon became a state for the Shi'ites.
The demographic story is simple: for hundreds of years, even while there was still feudalism in Lebanon, the Shi'ites were marginalized, socially, economically and politically. Because they were generally uneducated, they worked in vocations that were considered lowly, while the Christian elite formed the center of society, the economy and therefore also the political arena. And as in all other places in the world, the groups that are marginalized have many children, and the elite sectors have fewer, because of the different priorities of the young women, who prefer a career over marriage, and a shapely figure more than children. This is true all over the world, from Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo, from London to Istanbul. Israel is a bit different in this regard, but in Lebanon it applies well: among the Shi'ites, who engage in polygamy, marriage at a young age and the prohibition of "family planning", they fulfill the biblical passage "They were exceedingly fruitful and the Earth was filled with them", while the Christians froze their demographic growth because of monogamy, marrying – if at all - later in life and "family planning".
Because of their European education with the French touch, Christians tended to emigrate, while the Shi'ites, whose educational level is traditionally lower, tended to remain in the land of their birth while developing extensive contacts with Shiite concentrations of southern Iraq and Iran. Since the Islamic revolution of 1980 in Iran, Lebanon was the first place where the "export of the revolution" was implemented: propagandists came from Iraq and Iran to preach to those Shi'ites who had strayed from religion and adopted a secular way of life. Funds poured in to build schools and religious community centers and to support needy families, but the most important things were weapons, military training and the feeling that this created among the Shi'ites of "Yes, we can!" - that the period of oppression was over for good, and that the future belongs to them. In their view, their militia, Hizbollah ("Party of Allah"), emerged as the winner of the long conflicts with Israel, and their jihad justified leaving Hizbollah in possession of its weapons, despite the fact that all of the other Lebanese militias were disbanded after the Ta'if Accord of 1989. Today the Shi'ites use their military success as leverage in the political arena, where they have become the strongest body in Lebanon.
The Lebanese political arena is divided into two parts: the supporters of Hizbollah and its opponents; those who gambled on their success and joined them, against those who are trying to save themselves from the Shia-Iranian-Syrian hegemony. The disturbances in Tripoli are the direct result of this rivalry: the Alawites are an inseparable part of the Hizbollah coalition, while the Sunnis are not interested in being under the wings of the Nasrallah-Khamenei-Asad hegemony.
The support that Iran gives to Hizbollah and its friends is not the only instance of external involvement in Lebanon, because the weapons and the ammunition that the Sunnis in Syria and in Lebanon get, by way of boats like "Lotf Allah 2", are paid for with funds from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Emirates in the Gulf. The conflicts in Tripoli, even if they will be forgotten as they were in the past, will break out again as long as the situation in Lebanon between Hizbollah and its opponents is as it is today, and as long as Iran and Saudia Arabia do battle with each other until the last drop of blood of the last Lebanese person.
From the tragedy of Tripoli and Lebanon we can draw several conclusions: in the Middle East it is not possible to establish a state with an Arab society and Western political characteristics; Iranian involvement - even the economic and cultural – will ultimately undermine Western cultural and political influence in the Middle East; and whoever legitimizes jihad against Israel receives terror in his own streets in return.
The question that remains unanswered is whether the West will continue to abandon its Sunni friends in Lebanon and Syria, and leave them to the tender mercies of the unholy trinity - Iran-Syria-Hizbollah - to subordinate them, or perhaps the West will wake up and understand that failure in Damascus and Tripoli could bring the Iranians to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, whose waves will carry them from the port of Tripoli straight to Europe.
Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Mordechai.Kedar@biu.ac.il) is an Israeli scholar of Arabic and Islam, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. He specializes in Islamic ideology and movements, the political discourse of Arab countries, the Arabic mass media, and the Syrian domestic arena.
Translated from Hebrew by Sally Zahav.
Links to Dr. Kedar's recent articles on this blog:
- The Frustrated Intellectual
- Syria, Iraq, the Gulf and the Iranian Tentacles
- The Failure of the Palestinian Venture
- Is Islam the Solution?Radical Islam in Africa
- Mordechai Kedar: What's Really Going on in Gaza?
- The Alternative Homeland
- The Real Thing
- The Division of Syria
- The Death Throes of the Lion
- An Old Governmental System in Formation
- Frustration and Extortion
- Thank You, Hamas
- Drums of War in the Gulf
- 2011: The Year of the Arab Winter
- And This is the Gate of Heaven
- In the Shadow of the Rising Islamic Crescent
- Who Stole My Revolution
- The Noose Tightens
- The Desert of Death
- Jihad Forever
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.