Deadly sectarian clashes linked to the unrest in Syria may have ended for now in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, but residents warn that violence is bound to boil over again.
“It’s only a matter of time before we come face to face with Assad’s supporters again,” said Abu Ziad, a fisherman in the mainly Sunni Muslim port, referring to supporters of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and members of the minority Alawite community that staunchly back his regime.
“They have done so much to hurt us,” the 43-year-old added. “Syria has spelled nothing but trouble for all of Lebanon, but especially Tripoli and the north.”
Tension between two neighbourhoods in the city — one with a majority of Sunnis and the other Alawites — came to a head at the weekend and left nine people dead and nearly 50 wounded before the army intervened early on Tuesday to restore calm.
The clashes highlighted deep divisions among political parties in Lebanon over the crisis in Syria and fears that the unrest could spill over.
Since the outbreak of the revolt against Assad in March of last year, Tripoli has become a safe haven for thousands of refugees fleeing the unrest that has left more than 12,000 people dead, according to a rights group.
Sectarian violence has flared on a number of occasions in the city since the revolt broke out but the recent escalation was the deadliest and saw hardline Sunni Islamists, or Salafists, taking part in the fighting.
“In my opinion, the situation will get worse,” said Sheikh Nabil al-Rahim, a local cleric.
“The problem may have been resolved for now but it will get bad again later,” he added.
He noted that unrest was likely to continue given that Tripoli had become a key hub of support for the Syrian opposition, much to the dislike of the Lebanese government, domininated by the pro-Syrian party Hezbollah.
“Tripoli has become an essential backer of the revolution in terms of money, weapons and helping refugees and there is a desire to stop this,” he told AFP.
He said Lebanese authorities were largely responsible for the recent clashes which erupted after the arrest of an Islamist on charges of belonging to a terrorist organisation.
His supporters, however, say he was targeted because he was helping Syrian refugees.
The incident highlighted seething anger among the Sunni community in Tripoli over its belief that the government was kowtowing to the regime in Damascus.
“As Sunnis, we feel the state and the army are targeting us,” said Omar Lababidi, a 30-year-old construction worker in Tripoli.
“The Shiites have weapons and they call them resistance fighters,” he added. “If a Sunni carries a knife, he gets called a terrorist.”
Other residents of the city said all they wished for was peace so that the city could concentrate on its economic development and address endemic poverty.
“Tripoli is very poor,” said Ahmad Jaber, a resident of Bab al-Tebbaneh, a mainly Sunni neighbourhood that sees frequent clashes with the nearby mainly Alawite district of Jabal Mohsen.
“Young men pick up weapons because they have nothing else to do,” he added. “Most of us here don’t have jobs.”
Jaber noted that he grew up during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war and hoped his children would lead a different life.
“I don’t have an education,” he said. “But I’ve seen enough to know that I don’t want the new generation, the children of Tripoli, to grow up fighting.”