Tag Archives: conflict

Lebanon: The trouble with Tripoli

This is my first bi-weekly column for the Arab Awakening section at openDemocracy.net. You can find the original here, and I strongly suggest taking a look at the excellent articles from my fellow columnists here: http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/this-weeks-window-on-middle-east-may-21-2012. I’ll be posting my columns on Lebanonsense after they go up there, and will hopefully still have time to update this blog with other thoughts and photos as I go.

 

Last week clashes erupted across Tripoli, North Lebanon, killing nine and wounding over 50 more  . At the time of writing the fighting has abated, with the army presiding over a fragile peace, but some fear these hostilities are a sign of Lebanon’s infection by the violence in neighbouring Syria and consequent descent into conflict.

When I went through Tripoli as the initial protest was just starting up, Sunni Islamists were beginning a sit-in on Tripoli’s al Nour square, blocking the main road through the city. They were demonstrating for the release of Shadi al-Mawlawi, an activist who had purportedly been lured by security services under false pretences  and arrested for association with a terrorist group.

Road-blocking protests are common here, and it is often possible to tell whether there are problems in Tripoli by the increased traffic diverted through the road outside my workplace northeast of the city. This protest, however, unravelled into a series of fire-fights centred on the pro-Assad Alawite community of Jabal Mohsen, and the opposing Sunni community of Bab al-Tabbaneh. These two districts, separated appropriately enough by ‘Syria Street’, have a Montague and Capulet-esque history of violence between them, and such clashes are treated by locals as a fact of life. Nevertheless, the increased intensity, duration and spread of the fighting this time are cause for concern.

International media have tended to frame this as ‘spill-over’ from Syria  . The civil conflict there certainly has an impact here, and the two communities justify their fighting with reference to events unfolding across the border. Nevertheless the story in Tripoli is more complex than simple metastasization of Syria’s violence. North Lebanon is home to a majority-Sunni population who suffered considerably under the Syrian occupation of Lebanon that ended in 2005. Animosity and resentment therefore existed toward the Syrian-associated Alawites long before the uprising across the border. But a more important root to the current violence is the poverty blighting these communities. It is no secret that Tripoli is neglected in terms of investment, education, public services and employment compared to Beirut. Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen are not just the centre of ideological animosity, but also among the most deprived communities in Lebanon, with approximately 20% of men  there being unemployed.

Ideological difference, competitive victimhood, cramped geography and socioeconomic deprivation make for a dangerous mix, and many here see the fighters as pawns of higher political powers seeking to secure their influence in Lebanon ahead of next year’s elections. Of those I have spoken to, some regard al-Mawlawi’s arrest as intentional provocation by pro-Assad interests seeking to goad Lebanon towards supporting the regime, and its associates in Lebanon, by fomenting strife in the north. Others suggest that the protesting Salafists were awaiting an excuse for a show of strength, and al-Mawlawi’s arrest provided just such an opportunity. Whoever is seen as the main agitator, people fear that increasing brinksmanship is a sign that both groups perceive zero-hour as fast approaching, and that wider conflict is unavoidable.

Lebanon’s population has almost incalculable variation – and polarisation – along religious, political and community lines. Tripoli is a microcosm of that, and the stark economic and social realities for many living here make these divisions all the more salient. The chances of Lebanon-wide conflict remain low, restrained by the still-fresh memories of the destruction of the civil war. Nevertheless Syria’s turmoil will continue to cause ripples, as disenfranchised and frustrated communities frame their distress in terms of political grievances. If Tripoli is to avoid spiralling into further chaos, efforts must be made to understand and deal with underlying issues, rather than dismissing the violence as an unavoidable side-effect of Syria’s internal strife.

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Playing Soldiers

Yesterday I went to watch a demonstration in the camp. It was the anniversary of the foundation of the Arab Liberation Front (a Ba’athist-associated minor faction within the PLO) and another significant date associated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (another political faction – this time closely associated with the Syrian regime and Hezbollah – with a particularly dark past that has included attacks on school children), and so two parades had been organised through the streets and alleyways of Beddawi Camp.

The residents are, understandably, very cautious of foreigners taking photos, especially when they are kitted up with guns and demonstrating. Luckily, I went with a colleague who wanted to borrow my camera to take some photos for a website. Some of the shots are quite remarkable, and the things that I saw yesterday have been playing through my mind ever since. Among the standard armed militiamen in fatigues and carrying Kalashnikovs, and the local Sheikhs and members of the Popular Committees (all old men – the de facto political leadership in the camps), were a startling number of children.

Some of these kids were members of the Palestinian Scout Association. They looked smart, in neat uniforms, playing drums and bagpipes, waving flags, and with obvious pride at being in the parade. Others were in replica military uniforms, some as young as 6-7, either holding replica weapons or real guns. There’s something really quite overwhelming about seeing a young boy carrying an assault rifle, struggling under the weight of it while he marches along with his father. One can’t call them child soldiers as this was just a march and not a battle. But it makes me wonder where, in the event of a conflict, would the community draw the age line? When I asked a colleague about this he said simply that, if these Palestinians are attacked, everyone in the community would be involved in fighting back.

The photoset from the parades leaves me in a real quandary. Firstly, I wasn’t the one behind the lens so they strictly speaking aren’t my photos to share. What is more, they contain faces of people who would not want me to share them, and the faces of children who deserve protection and anonymity. Nevertheless, I desperately want to show people what I saw, and for them to be shocked as I was. I’ll not publish the photos (except the one above as it contains no faces), but I will describe one of them.

The highlight of the set was a picture of a young boy, no older than 9-10, at the front of one of the parades. He was wearing military fatigues, a beret, and had a floral wreath around his neck to be laid at a monument in the centre of the camp. His face was ruddy-cheeked, open, and with truly startling eyes – one bright, icy blue, one dark brown. I’ve been trying not to get carried away in florid metaphor, but in this case it’s possibly forgivable. Everything about the child, about the community, seemed to be contained in those heterochromatic eyes. One eye held the brightness of hope, innocence, pride, and the possibility of a better tomorrow that is embodied by children. The other seemed to contain the darkness of violence, fear, anger and despair that has been this community’s past, and may still yet be their future.

(I’ve just been told that the ribbon on the wreath around the boy’s neck bears the name of the ‘Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command’. Given their history of targeting children, that’s pretty chilling too.)

For me, the most troubling aspect of seeing armed children is not just the immorality of placing children at risk, but the fact that it saps away all hope for a better future for a community. If children are made to feel proud to be armed, and if this is the only way they are taught to resist or seek change, then it closes down the possibility that they will find their own, peaceful way to pursue the justice and freedoms they will want in their lives.

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Photo: From a recent trip to Nahr el Bared refugee camp

Bomb-damaged building in Nahr el Bared

(Apologies for poor quality- taken on a slightly shonky cameraphone)

This photo was taken on a recent work visit to Nahr el Bared camp, most of which was destroyed or severely damaged during the Nahr el Bared conflict of 2007, when the Lebanese Army fought militant group Fatah al Islam in a three-month siege. The fighting killed 52 civilians, along with 226 Fatah al-Islam militants and 168 Lebanese soldiers. Some 27,000 refugees were displaced by the crisis (mostly to here in Beddawi, some to Tripoli and other locations), and many of these have still been unable to return five years on. Of those who have returned, many either live in cramped temporary accommodation blocks (think rows of shipping containers, each containing a family and stacked two-high, with a cramped, dark alleyway down the middle) or among the ruins themselves. It’s not uncommon to see a washing line with kids’ clothes hung up over a shrapnel-damaged wall, or children playing in the rubble.

The camp is still under the control of the Lebanese army, so taking lots of photos is not very welcome, but the shot above shows one of severely damaged buildings with families living in the partial-ruins. By chance, UNRWA have a photo of the same building (from the same angle) taken in 2009 on their website. Comparing the two, you can see some of the reconstruction work – breezeblocks to patch up the broken walls, new columns put in – though I’m not sure whether this is official reconstruction or informal work by the residents themselves. Either way, progress is slow right across the camp, largely due to a lack of resources.

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Debates on Syria – a view from the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon

It can be hard as an outsider to see what keeps people killing. Our news channels are filled with images of death and destruction from Homs and Idlib, with estimates that as many as 7,500-8,000 civilians have died in the whole of Syria so far. We see protests – students and fighters, men and women – crying out for freedom. Yet the government continues the oppression with impunity, now seeming to move from town to town, making no distinction between civilian and combatant.

A lot of these images come to us through Arab media outlets like Al Jazeera. With ever-decreasing trust in British media and a growing public understanding of cultural distortion and bias, there is a thirst for something ‘real’. When we see Al Jazeera, Qatari-owned and serving largely-Muslim populations, it seems to be the best way to access ‘reality’ amidst the drama of the Arab Spring. That trust is not always shared by people in the Middle East, however, who are wary of an entirely different set of biases.

Sat in a barber’s shop in one of the oft-forgotten Palestinian refugee camps here in Lebanon, I got talking to a friend who told me why he supports Assad. It is his firm belief that the Syrian rebels are being armed by Gulf States who sought influence in Syria. He switched on the TV in the shop, and showed me Syrian state news, at that moment showing an apparently peaceful Homs and interviews with locals who said such things as “God praise the army” and “Now we are free from the terrorists”. The segment ended on a light-hearted scene, with the reporter signing off from inside the scoop of a digger helping to repair some of the damage. Quite different from the panicked scenes we are used to from the media we access back home.

He also told me of another report that had been showing on Syrian news the last few days, purportedly showing Al Jazeera reporters adding drama to their reports by timing them to coincide with the sound of bombs, and even bandaging children in hospitals and telling them what to say in interviews. It’s hardly surprising that the mouthpiece media of a violently oppressive regime would to seek to manipulate opinion and discredit rivals, but it did serve as a reminder that, for people here, Al Jazeera is seen as a pro-Gulf propaganda voice in a sea of many competing accounts. The diverse array of news outlets means that people can, and will, choose the narrative that best fits what they already believe.

On civilian deaths his response was troublingly blasé, regarding them as unavoidable collateral damage in a legitimate urban war against insurgency, something all the more chilling as a reminder of the official Western line in Iraq and Afghanistan. His final point though was something I couldn’t escape easily. How can Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar demand democracy and representation in Syria when their own people do not have such privileges? And why do they pursue to a violent solution, seeking to arm the rebels, rather than pressuring for dialogue and reform?

My friend’s opinions were surprising – he’s a kind, calm and thoughtful guy, and not the deranged fanaticist we may expect from a vehement Assad supporter. By contrast one fierce opponent of the Syrian regime I spoke to was much more violent in his language when asked his opinion: “[Assad] has to go. When they catch him, they should do what they did to Gaddafi and kill him. But before they kill him, they should fuck him. I should be there when that happens.”

It can be confusing living in the Middle East. The sheer number of narratives, identities and competing power interests mean it is difficult to settle on a firm understanding of events. I have no doubt where my sympathies instinctively lie in Syria – empathy for people’s suffering and belief in self-determination and democracy mean I hope for change in what is undoubtedly a brutal regime, though I don’t necessarily trust the intentions of all the rebels – but it is increasingly unclear how best to get to a solution that would bring long-term peace. The case for intervention seems strong, but the nature of power, identity and influence in the region means we run the risk of replacing one type of oppression for another. Alternatively, the slow transition to reform the Assad has offered seems disingenuous and unlikely to lead to the sorts of freedom so desired by his opponents.

Ultimately, it is fear that keeps people killing. For soldiers on the ground, it may be fear that defection would be suicide. For those seeking revolution, it is fear of destruction and continued oppression. But the supporters of the regime, many of them ordinary men and women inside and outside of Syria, have fears too. They fear violent retribution at the hands of the rebels should the regime fall. They fear the ulterior motives of foreign powers (Gulf States, Israel, the West), perhaps no surprise given the history of external control that has determined so much of people’s lives in the region. As the difficult rebirths of Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt show, finding a solution that can allay everyone’s fears will be very difficult indeed.

PS: For anyone interested in what I consider to be the best hope for Syria, and there’s no reason you should be, I would recommend ICG’s briefing paper on the topic. The field is too divided for a military solution but the status quo is hardly acceptable and will probably lead the state to fail in the long-term. I think ICG over-state the centrality of Russia in this, as the regime is probably too strong for the rebels to effectively overcome even without Russian support, but getting them onside with a genuine all-party negotiated solution would definitely be a huge step. Russia have today started to change the tone of their usual embuggerance stance on Syria and said they would support Annan’s peace plan, but how much difference this makes remains to be seen.

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