A Lebanese army soldier walks with his weapon on a patrol after being deployed to tighten security, following clashes between Sunni Muslims and Alawites in the northern port city of Tripoli May 21, 2013. (OMAR IBRAHIM/REUTERS)

While the Syrian opposition urges more men to assist embattled rebels in the fight for the key town of Qusair, dozens of young Lebanese fighters are leaving Syria to join a battle closer to home

Lebanon’s second-biggest city, Tripoli, was convulsed by violence for a fourth day Wednesday, with Sunni Muslims from the ramshackle Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood trading mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades with their neighbors in the Alawite enclave of Jabal Mohsen.

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.

Hezbollah’s role

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.

As Hezbollah forces began to play a deeper role in assisting Assad’s forces in the villages surrounding Qusair last month, two Lebanese Sunni religious leaders called for their followers to cross the border to defend fellow Sunnis in Syria. The rebel Free Syrian Army announced last month that foreign fighters were not welcome to join its effort to topple Assad, but that has not stopped the flow.

Funerals for two Lebanese Sunnis killed in Syria were held in Wadi Khalid in northern Lebanon on Tuesday, according to al-
Arabiya television.

With rebels under pressure from forces loyal to Assad, George Sabra, leader of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, appealed Wednesday for fighters from throughout Syria to travel to Qusair to “rescue” the town.

‘An eye for an eye’

One of Allouke’s men, nicknamed Abu Omar, said that with violence rising in Tripoli, there is no temptation to leave for Qusair. “We are under attack. We have to stay here to defend our wives and children,” he said.

The Alawites in Jabal Mohsen, perched on the hill above Bab al-Tabbaneh, contend that the Sunnis stirred tension.

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” Rifaat Eid, an Alawite leader, wrote on his Facebook page Tuesday. “This is the last straw. You will hear the roar of Jabal Mohsen.”

Regardless of who is responsible for the provocation, both sides are quick to take up arms. About 35 percent of the population of Tripoli, once a Levantine trade hub, lives below the poverty line, with the figure even higher in Jabal Mohsen and in Bab al-Tabbaneh. With unemployment rife, violence often appears to be fueled by boredom.

The regular crack of sniper fire rang through the neighborhoods on Wednesday afternoon as most fighters took a break. Abu Omar joked with a friend as they sent a mortar round hissing up the hill to the Alawites. “We have many more,” he said with a smile as the sound of the blast reverberated. After darkness fell, the violence began in earnest once more.

It is a futile battle, one in which fighters admit they are pawns in a bigger game but continue regardless.

“I was born in 1969 in Tripoli and all I’ve known is guns,” Allouke said. “We’ll live here, we’ll die here. They’ll take their orders from Bashar al-Assad to kill us, and we’ll try to kill them. This is the way of life.”