Those involved in the fighting in Bab al-Tabbaneh accuse the Syrian government of instructing Tripoli’s Alawites — who belong to the same Shiite sect as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — of stirring tension. The Assad regime’s aim, they say, is to ensure that men from the city don’t travel to Syria to take up arms alongside the largely Sunni opposition.
Although the warring neighborhoods have fought sporadically throughout the Syrian civil war, the most recent bout of clashes has been particularly fierce, with nearly 50 mortar rounds fired in an hour Tuesday night. The new intensity is evidence of Lebanon’s increasing entanglement in Syria’s two-year-old conflict, which has exacerbated sectarian tensions across the region.
“It’s all because of Qusair,” said a bearded fighter who gave his name as Abu Barra and lives on Syria Street, the aptly named thoroughfare that serves as a front line between the two communities. “The Alawites have their orders to make problems so our men will return.”
He said a group of 90 fighters left the Lebanese port city for Qusair last week under a commander known as Abu Hassan but returned home Tuesday as the fighting raged in Tripoli. At least 10 people have been killed, including two soldiers, since clashes broke out here Sunday. The violence in Tripoli erupted just hours after Syrian government troops, backed by fighters from the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, began their push for Qusair, a strategic town that the opposition has held for more than a year.
“The regime wants to distract Lebanon from the crimes being committed by Hezbollah in Syria, and they want our men back here,” said Ziad Allouke, the leader of a ragtag group of Sunni fighters, as he smoked a water pipe in a deserted vegetable market during a lull in the fighting Wednesday. He confirmed that the group had tried to reach Qusair, but he said the men returned after encountering difficulties along the way and learning of renewed violence at home.
With Hezbollah militants backing Assad’s troops in Qusair, the battle is hitting particularly close to home for many disaffected Sunnis in Tripoli who hold deep animosity toward the Shiite group, which they say is increasing its grip on power.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Wednesday that Hezbollah’s intervention in Qusair has been “very, very, significant.”
“There are several thousands of Hezbollah militia forces on the ground in Syria who are contributing to this violence, and we condemn that,” he said during a trip to Jordan for a Friends of Syria meeting.