Tripoli neighborhood scarred by battles Kareem Shaheen| The Daily Star
Oct. 28, 2014
TRIPOLI, Lebanon: A mural bearing the word “Allah” stood pierced with bullets in the heart of the restive neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh. It was hours after the end of fierce battles between the Lebanese Army and militants inspired by ISIS and the Nusra Front that devastated swaths of the troubled streets and left residents in a daze as they picked up the pieces once more.
The military was deploying at the center of Bab al-Tabbaneh, its armored vehicles manned by soldiers who rarely held ground this deep in the heavily armed district. While the fighting had ceased, the occasional sound of a mine being exploded by the Army echoed nearby. “The Army must enter because there is too much filth,” said one merchant who was clearing shards of broken glass from his shop, as Army soldiers snacked on sandwiches and smoked nearby, enjoying respite from the fighting. “Everybody wants their own state and think they know religion and God, and they know none of that.”The merchant said the extremists had been recruiting young local men, preying on them amid high unemployment. “Get any youth and give them a few thousand liras and they’ll do anything,” he said. “Let them clean up, we want to work and live.” The neighborhood was devastated in the fighting, smoke rising from its center, debris lining the streets from burnt out apartments, vegetable stands in the district’s famed market toppled. Machine-gun casings and shells lined the street, and broken glass was everywhere as well as around the husks of cars with shattered windows and bullet holes. The bullet holes were everywhere, some the mark of the weekend’s fighting while others had scarred the neighborhood in previous months when militia leaders fought fierce battles with the neighboring Jabal Mohsen, a predominantly Alawite area that supports the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. The corpse of a dog killed in the fighting lay in the sun on Syria Street, the traditional flashpoint of the previous clashes, rotting in the heat. Shops had shuttered their doors, and there appeared to be little life in the ramshackle apartment blocks in the area, some of them collapsed and others blackened by shelling. A burning stench was omnipresent amid the estranged quiet that took hold.
The military’s fierce and unprecedented response, including the use of helicopter gunships to attack militant hideouts, was a clear message that the Army would no longer tolerate militancy.
But some residents decried the Army’s measures, saying many civilians had been wounded in the assault, pointing out trails of dried blood and locations where family members were wounded in the shelling as well as pathways through which they were evacuated.
They said the use of force was excessive, that the Army could have arrested the militants without a broad campaign, and pointed out in particular the use of aerial fire.
“We are Lebanese,” one resident said, implying the Army should not have used helicopters against citizens. Some residents claimed that there were no gunmen in the area when the Army launched its campaign. “Those houses all had women and children and they destroyed them,” said a resident of the neighborhood who appeared to be in his 20s, gesturing at a row of damaged houses in the center of Bab al-Tabbaneh. Still, flags belonging to the Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda offshoot fighting in Syria, fluttered in the neighborhood alongside posters glorifying Sheikh Houssam Sabbagh, a Salafist militia commander arrested back in July. A poster of fugitive Salafist Preacher Ahmad Assir, whose fighters engaged in deadly clashes with the Army last year in Sidon, declared him the “lion of the Sunnis.” “Only God is with us,” said a resident who expressed his anger at the campaign as well as the rampant poverty of the neighborhood. “Where are the human rights? Nobody hates the state but the state is walking over all the poor people.” But some older residents praised the Army campaign, saying it was necessary to “cleanse” the neighborhood of extremists who were using the poverty and high unemployment in one of the most impoverished areas of Tripoli to recruit young men.
Some said night watches of gunmen with long beards and face covers had emerged and were recruiting youth and disbursing austere religious teachings to residents, giving them meager cash handouts to earn their loyalty and take up arms for various groups of unknown affiliation. But many did not remain. Some families fled during a two-hour cease-fire on Sunday to the nearby public schools in the Zahriyya neighborhood. One widow who fled with her four children said she was woken up at 5 a.m. by the sound of gunfire, and shots landing inside her home. She said the presence of gunmen, weaponry and lawlessness in the neighborhood had intensified in recent times, and that more teenagers were taking up arms. She heard the gunmen paid the youths in the neighborhood quite well. Aid workers distributed food and household products to displaced residents. They held activities for children to comfort them after the violence they witnessed. “Our hope is for things to be cleaned up,” the woman said. “We want to live in security.”
Lebanese Army restores order, militant leaders on the run Oct. 28, 2014/Antoine Amrieh| The Daily Star
TRIPOLI, Lebanon: An uneasy calm took hold across Tripoli Monday shortly after the Lebanese Army, backed by helicopter gunships, brought the northern city fully under its control by seizing the last bastion of an Islamist militant leader blamed for attacks on military posts. The Army’s campaign against terrorist groups has put an end to four days of fierce clashes with militants inspired by ISIS and the Nusra Front. The clashes left 42 people dead and some 150 wounded. Among the fatalities were 23 gunmen, 11 soldiers and eight civilians. The wounded included 92 soldiers, and 63 gunmen and civilians, security sources said. By Monday evening, at least 162 gunmen had been arrested throughout the north since the fighting erupted, according to the Army. The United States, meanwhile, voiced support for the Army after the Tripoli clashes. Washington joined with Lebanon “as it mourns the loss of the soldiers and officers who died defending Lebanon from terrorist groups,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. The U.S. also “commends the bravery of the personnel of the Lebanese armed forces who are working to keep Tripoli and Akkar safe for all residents.” Psaki said Washington stood by the country and its government, adding: “We condemn those who seek to sow chaos in Lebanon and are confident that the Lebanese people will persevere if they stand united in the face of this threat.”Psaki also praised Prime Minister Tammam Salam for his “strong stand,” adding Washington was “very confident” in the Army’s ability to defend the country.Residents who fled their houses in the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, the scene of pitched battles between the Army and militants, returned Monday as troops surrounded the district and mounted raids in search for fugitive gunmen. There was public relief over the end of the latest round of fighting in Tripoli, with residents expressing satisfaction with the heavy Army deployment in the city, ravaged by several rounds of sectarian clashes linked to the war in Syria.
Sorrow grips Bekaa Valley as fallen soldiers laid to rest
The Daily Star 28.10.14/RIYAQ, Lebanon: The Bekaa Valley town of Riyaq was mired in grief and sorrow Monday as Lebanese Army Maj. Ibrahim Fawzi Salhab was laid to rest after being killed during clashes with Islamists in north Lebanon. The town’s husseinieh was crowded with locals who gathered to mourn the fallen soldier, including Salhab’s father, who wore his son’s military uniform. Also attending the funeral were Lt. Col. Mohammad Shmaiteli, representing Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi and Defense Minister Samir Moqbel, as well as representatives of the Internal Security Forces and General Security. Salhab was killed during one of the worst bouts of violence to hit the north in years, and was one of 42 people who died, 11 of whom were soldiers. The Lebanese Army has been fighting militants since late last week after a military unit was attacked by Islamist militants in Tripoli in retaliation for the arrest of an alleged ISIS member Thursday during a raid in Dinnieh. “Assaulting people’s security and insulting the Army are prohibited,” Shmaiteli said, explaining that the military institution had a strict goal to prevent terrorism from destabilizing the country. Riyaq Imam Sheikh Saadoun Ayoub urged the government and officials to provide the Army with the necessary support. “This is how we protect the country and its security.”Salhab’s coffin was then raised on the crowd’s shoulders as the anthem of martyrdom was played and he was honored by Shmaiteli, who presented the fallen soldier with the Cedars medal and other honors. Not far away in the village of Halaniyeh in Baalbek-Hermel, soldier Ihab Halani was also laid to rest. Various officials and representatives participated in the funeral, which was dominated by a sense of overwhelming sadness.“We will combat the terrorism plans,” said Col. Michel Nakhle, representing the Army commander. Maj. Deeb Tahesh, who hails from the Akkar district village of Qerqouf, was also buried amid a motorcade of local officials and representatives. “[We put our hands] with our children that are building this country in the face of terrorists who are trying to ruin it,” said Mohammad Tahesh, the late soldier’s father, during the funeral. First Lt. Firas al-Hakim was laid to rest Sunday in his hometown of Mechrefe in Aley district, Private Ahmad al-Asaad was buried in Safinet al-Qaytaa in Akkar, recruit Abbas Ibrahim was laid to rest in Shmestar in Baalbek-Hermel, and recruit Jaafar Asaad was buried in Arida in Akkar.
Tripoli battles part of ISIS-Nusra scheme to establish Islamic emirate
Hussein Dakroub/ The Daily Star/Oct. 28, 2014
BEIRUT: Four days of fierce fighting between the Lebanese Army and Tripoli’s militants were part of a scheme by ISIS and the Nusra Front to establish a foothold in northern Lebanon, and eventually set up an Islamic emirate in the multi-sectarian country, analysts said Monday. They added that the Army’s determination to crush militants in northern Lebanon, regardless of the sacrifices that entailed in the ongoing battle against homegrown terrorism, has foiled attempts by ISIS and Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front to establish an Islamic state in the country. “The scheme to establish an Islamic emirate in north Lebanon is a long-term objective of militant groups. ISIS and the Nusra Front had prepared this scheme two years ago,” Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese Army general and an expert on terrorism, told The Daily Star. “Destabilizing north Lebanon and awakening sleeper cells to attack the Army are signs of laying the ground for establishing an Islamic emirate,” said Jaber, director of the Middle East Center for Political Studies and Research, a Beirut-based think tank. “The Army is being targeted because it is the only force confronting terrorist groups in the north.”
He added that the establishment of even an “illusory” Islamic emirate is “a very dangerous signal” for Lebanon, long known for its religious tolerance and sectarian diversity.
Fadia Kiwan, head of the political science department at Universite St. Joseph, said she shared fears voiced by Lebanese officials, including Army chief Gen. Jean Kahwagi, that ISIS and the Nusra Front were planning to set up an Islamic emirate in the north. “In the past, extremist groups threatened to set up an Islamic caliphate or emirate in north Lebanon,” Kiwan told The Daily Star. “Now, part of the ISIS-Nusra Front scheme is to make a breakthrough to reach the sea and secure a safe access to the sea in order to export oil.”“I have confidence in the Army commander’s statement when he says these groups were planning to establish an Islamic emirate in the north,” she added. “The Daesh [ISIS] phenomenon, which is alien to the Lebanese, has found home among Lebanese militants in the north.”“ISIS and the Nusra Front have two goals: to incite Sunni-Shiite strife and build a foothold in Lebanon,” Kiwan said. “ISIS and the Nusra Front have shattered all borders [between Syria and Iraq] and are now trying to expand to Lebanon.” Speaking at a news conference following clashes between Lebanese troops and ISIS and Nusra Front gunmen in the northeastern town of Arsal on Aug. 2, Kahwagi said confessions by Imad Ahmad Jomaa, the alleged ISIS commander in Syria’s Qalamoun region whose arrest by the Army triggered the fighting, showed that the militants planned to establish an Islamic state between the Bekaa Valley and north Lebanon.
Tripoli was calm Monday after Lebanese commandos, backed by helicopter gunships, captured the stronghold of militant leaders Shadi Mawlawi and Osama Mansour following four days of pitched battles that rocked the predominantly Sunni city, leaving 42 people dead and some 150 wounded. The two militants are reportedly linked to the Nusra Front.
The fighting in Tripoli and the Minyeh district was the worst spillover of Syria’s war into Lebanon since ISIS and Nusra Front gunmen briefly overran Arsal in August.
Both Jaber and Kiwan said the Tripoli militants were part of the regional ISIS-Nusra Front network operating the region with the aim of promoting an Islamic Shariah-based rule in the Arab and Muslim worlds. They also praised the Army’s role in foiling alleged plans to set up an Islamic emirate in the north.
“The Tripoli battle is over but the Army’s war against terrorist groups is not finished at all. This war will drag on for a long time,” Jaber said.
“With its offensive in Tripoli and the Dinnieh region, the Army has thwarted a major terrorist scheme aimed at undermining Lebanon’s security through three bomb-rigged cars, an arms cache and explosives belts and devices discovered by the military [in Minyeh],” he said. Kiwan said: “The Army has so far succeeded in saving Lebanon from a scheme to set up an Islamic emirate. The Army has proved that it had prepared Plan-A and Plan-B for the battle against terrorism.” Because the Army’s siege had severed supply routes to ISIS and Nusra Front militants who are holed up in Arsal’s outskirts and are still holding 27 servicemen hostage, Jaber said the gunmen would try to secure safe access to the sea. “I expect these terrorist groups to try again to break into Arsal or attack villages in northern Bekaa with the aim of finding a logistical outlet to secure food, water, arms and ammunition during the winter,” he said.
However, Imad Salamey, a political science professor at the Lebanese American University, said he did not think ISIS and the Nusra Front were working to establish an Islamic state in north Lebanon for the time being. “The strategy of all radical political Islamic groups, Sunni or Shiite, calls for the establishment of an Islamic state,” Salamey told The Daily Star. “ISIS and Nusra’s plan for now is to maintain Lebanon as a logistical backup for their operations in Syria, rather than establish an Islamic state.”Although noting that the Lebanese Army has taken control of Tripoli, Salamey said: “The Tripoli battles definitely will breed more extremism, setting the stage for new rounds of fighting in the future.” He said the threat of renewed fighting in Tripoli will persist “unless there is a comprehensive solution under which the Lebanese government applies the law equally among all its citizens and the state is the sole authority politically and militarily on its own territory.” Salamey said he expected Lebanon to continue to suffer from the fallout of turmoil in the region. “The regional environment is unstable. So it is difficult for Lebanon to be stable. Lebanon needs to take any possible measures to prevent a spillover of external conflicts,” he said.
In addition to strengthening and reasserting government authority across the country, Salamey said Lebanon needs to maintain “neutrality” on regional conflicts and comply with the Baabda Declaration. Asked about whether the Tripoli militants were part of the regional ISIS-Nusra network, he said: “Some of them might be part of this network, but others are local residents who do not like what they see as the Lebanese Army’s ‘aggressive role’ against the Sunnis. These people reflect long-standing Sunni grievances.”