The intimidation campaign is the latest spillover from neighboring Syria’s long-running civil war, which has been re-created in microcosm in this impoverished port city, Lebanon’s second-largest. Alawite residents of the Jabal Mohsen neighborhood who back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a fellow Alawite, have frequently clashed with Sunni residents of nearby Bab al-Tabbaneh, who support the Syrian rebels. The Alawites are a minority Shiite sect.
In August, two Sunni mosques were bombed, killing more than 40 people; Alawite leader Ali Eid was charged with aiding one of the suspects. A few days after the bombings, taxi driver Ali Assi, another Alawite, became the first victim of a targeted shooting.
Assi was driving in Bab al-Tabbaneh when his vehicle was stopped by gunmen. He would not normally consider it safe to drive through the Sunni neighborhood, he said, but it was early in the morning, and he thought the risk was minimal.
“They started beating me and telling me the Alawites shouldn’t be in Lebanon,” Assi said. “They put me in the back of the car.”
He was driven to an open patch of land by a nearby traffic circle and released. When he started to run, the gunmen opened fire. Assi took 13 bullets in the legs and lower back.
Rifaat Eid, Ali Eid’s son and the political chief of the Alawite Arab Democratic Party, said 38 Alawites have been attacked since the mosque bombings. Many were pulled from their vehicles on the way to or from work. The number was confirmed by a senior Lebanese security official, who said at least 25 of the victims were intentionally shot in the legs.
The shootings, reminiscent of “kneecapping” tactics once used by paramilitary forces in Northern Ireland and Italy, have created a siege mentality within the Alawite community, with increasing numbers of men afraid to leave their neighborhood.
“We were coming back from work in Beirut and they stopped our bus,” recalled Ali Mazloum, one of the eight men targeted in an incident last month. “They knew we were from Jabal Mohsen. They told us to get down off the bus and then they started shooting at us. As each one came off, they shot him with a pistol in the legs.”
With a bone shattered and one of his legs pinned inside a metal cage for a year, Mazloum, 38, is unable to return to his job in a fast-food chicken restaurant. He does not know whether he will walk again.
He sees the attack as part of a concerted campaign to permanently disable men of fighting age, so they cannot participate in clashes or work. Several arrests have been made in connection with the shooting, but Mazloum complains that the process has been slow.
“It’s part of a siege on the area,” he said. “Fifty percent used to go out and work outside. Now, of course, they are scared.”
In Rifaat Eid’s office, a portrait of onetime Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, hangs behind the desk. Eid and other Alawites are stalwart supporters of the Syrian government.
Eid says the complex sectarian politics of the Syrian war mean that Assad’s powerful Lebanese allies, such as the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, have become the most important supporters for the embattled residents of Jabal Mohsen.
“They help us,” Eid said, describing how vulnerable the minority Alawites feel in an area dominated by Sunnis who sympathize with the Syrian rebels. “When we are surrounded here, you are speaking about 50,000 people. They help us by money, by food, by water, by many things.”
The latest sectarian clashes in Tripoli, which began late last month, claimed at least 11 lives. Tension has risen over the shooting attacks on the Alawites, with Jabal Mohsen residents holding a demonstration.
In a cramped coffee shop in the run-down neighborhood, young men who used to hold down jobs while away the days smoking water pipes. Ali Mohammed Khatour, 38, said that he once worked in construction but that it’s now too dangerous. The widower, whose wife was caught in cross-fire in recent clashes, said he can’t risk orphaning his children.
“There has been aggression before, but the systematic shootings began after the bombing,” said Mahfoud Assi, 32, who runs the coffee shop. “It’s for sectarian reasons — retaliation.”
Assi, the taxi driver who was the first to be targeted, spends his days inside his apartment. The window offers a view of Bab al-Tabbaneh, just down the hill. He was born there, back when a few Alawites lived in the neighborhood. They have since been driven out, he said.
Assi will not stand by his window or leave the steel shutters open for long, for fear of being caught by a sniper. His walls are riddled with bullet holes. The family has built an additional inside wall in an attempt to protect them from the projectiles that fly during clashes.
During the latest bout of violence, Lebanon’s government announced that Tripoli would become a “military zone” controlled by the army.
But after clashes between the army and Sunni fighters, the city increasingly appears to have slipped beyond the control of the state.
“We blame the government,” Mazloum says. “The government should be responsible for our security.”
Alawite leaders say they do not expect a resolution anytime soon. They see themselves as pawns in a wider regional struggle.
“It’s not about Jabal Mohsen, it’s about two big lions who are fighting with each other,” Eid said. “And we are with Syria’s lion and Hezbollah’s lion, and they are with the Saudi lion. There is no solution now. The solution is in Syria, not here.”
Suzan Haidamous contributed to this report.