Lebanon's Alawites view Syrian crisis with growing concern
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They hail from the same community as Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Now Lebanon’s Alawite community is monitoring the situation across the Lebanon-Syrian border with trepidation. FRANCE 24 reports from northern Lebanon.
The northern Lebanese village of Tal Abbas is a nondescript, impoverished hamlet with a main street lined by a garage, a scrap metal store and a tiny barbershop with peeling walls. Tal Abbas is in the Akkar region north of Tripoli – Lebanon’s gritty second city – and it’s one of the poorest areas of Lebanon.
It also happens to be located just a few kilometres from the Syrian border and there are growing fears that the current crisis in Syria, sparked by protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, could spill over into the region.
Anxiety levels are particularly high among the Alawites, a community that follows the same offshoot of Shiite Islam as the embattled Syrian leader.
In these parts, support for Assad – and his father, former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad – is strong.
"When Hafez al-Assad came to power [in the 1970s], the Alawite community finally obtained rights in Syria and Lebanon,” said Ali Ahmed Ali, a client at the Tal Abbas barbershop.
“We buy our medications, our gas, even our vegetables in Syria. Everything is cheap there. I hope the regime will not fall. If Bashar al-Assad [who succeeded his father in 2000] falls, there will be no more Alawites or Christians here,” he predicts, brandishing his cane.
While Ali is defeatist, the barber himself is more pugnacious. "We have lived here all our lives, our homes are here, we will not budge,” he says as he expertly wields his scissors. “We are Lebanese and we will fight to defend ourselves."
A history of sectarian tensions
In the impoverished Jabal Mohsen neighborhood of Tripoli, posters of Bashar and Hafez al-Assad adorn the walls of some of the buildings.
But in this neighborhood that is home to the majority of Lebanon’s estimated 100,000 Alawites, the residents are cagey and suspicious.
"I'm sure no one in the neighborhood would say anything bad, but you never know. It’s important to avoid tensions," says Abdelatif Saleh, a spokesman for the Arab Democratic Party, the main political arm of Lebanon’s Alawites.
Saleh’s fears are justified. Tripoli has a history of sectarian tensions between the Alawites and their Sunni neighbors. The tensions stem from Syria’s longstanding involvement in Lebanese politics dating back to the country’s fratricidal civil war during the 1970s and the 1980s.
Clashes have frequently broken out between residents of Jabal Mohsen and Bab el-Tebbaneh, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Tripoli.
‘Bashar al-Assad’s wife is Sunni’
Tensions have been high in Tripoli since anti-Assad demonstrations broke out in Syria earlier this year. In June, fighting between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime claimed seven lives.
According to a diplomatic source, who asked not to be named, the Alawites are ready to fight to the end to defend Assad.
Saleh, the Arab Democratic Party spokesman, however wants to sound more reassuring. "We do not want to be the first spark that leads to war. We ordered our supporters not to give the other side any chance to cause conflict,” says Saleh. “What should we be afraid of? The Syrian position has no effect in Lebanon,” he adds.
But reflecting the widespread lack of trust in the Lebanese military’s ability to handle sectarian violence in the city - which was apparent during the deadly sectarian clashes in 2008 – Saleh is not ruling out armed conflict.
“If the tensions worsen in Syria, if the other camp here provokes us,” he says referring to Tripoli’s Sunni community, “and if the army does not protect us, then yes, in these conditions, we will defend ourselves.”
From his office in downtown Tripoli, Badr Wannous, one of Lebanon’s two Alawite parliamentarians, is adamant that the crisis in Syria will not spill over into Lebanon. Wannous is a member of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s March 14 alliance that is currently in the opposition and is largely against the Syrian regime.
"If the Syrian regime falls, no one will touch the Alawites of Tripoli,” he maintains. “We work hard to try to maintain a certain harmony. The Sunnis do not have to hate the Alawites, Bashar al-Assad’s wife is Sunni,” he explains, referring to Syria’s London-born first lady, Asma al-Assad.
‘The situation in Syria is excellent’
But outside Wannous’ office, the situation on the streets does not necessarily reflect the opposition parliamentarian’s optimism.
Saleh, the Arab Democratic Party spokesman, rarely goes to the centre of Tripoli, a Sunni majority area. He leaves Jabal Mohsen only to go to Syria. "I go every week, especially in areas where clashes are supposed to be taking place. But nothing happens! The media is lying. About 95% of the population supports Bashar al-Assad."
For his part, Ali Feddah, a young member of the Arab Democratic Party, agrees. He attributed the high death toll - 3,500 since mid-March according to the UN - to terrorist groups inciting the violence.
Former parliamentarian Mustafa Hussein Alawi, a member of the majority March 8 alliance that is dominated by Hezbollah, an ally of Damascus, also dismissed the Syrian protest movement. "The situation in Syria is excellent, even if there are still armed groups financed by the Gulf and the West," he says.
Down the road from Jabal Mohsen is the Sunni neighborhood of Bab el-Tebbaneh. Lebanese troops stationed in the city man an unseen line between the two neighborhoods. "Everyone is ready to fight if necessary,” says Abu Iyed, a young resident of Bab el-Tebbaneh.
“But the Alawites are supported by the Syrian regime, if Bashar al-Assad falls, they will be very weak. I do not believe they have the means to attack us. "
"Alawites and Sunnis are brothers,” maintains Abu Khaled, an elderly man sitting in front of a garage. “There is no religious conflict between us, we have no reason to be afraid of each other.
"But there are always groups in Bab el-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, who exploit the situation. They take advantage of us for their own interests.”
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