The balance of power between the country’s two largest communities, the Sunnis and Shiites, as well as a tacit agreement between various groups not to plunge Lebanon into chaos has so far kept recurrent Tripoli clashes from degenerating into a full-fledged conflict, analysts said Tuesday. “At this point, perhaps the only thing preventing further deterioration of the situation in Tripoli and in Lebanon as a whole is some sort of mutual deterrence; the Sunni-Shiite balance of power as both sides are afraid of mutually assured destruction,” said Karim Bitar, a senior fellow at the Paris think-tank Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS).
Fadia Kiwan, head of the Political Science Department at Lebanon’s Universite Saint Joseph, added that simmering tensions in Tripoli were being regularly used to apply pressure in one direction or the other.
“Lebanese factions have so far decided they want to avoid dragging the country into chaos,” she said. “The Tripoli card is being moderately used by Lebanese groups to exercise pressure in one direction or the other.”
Analysts also argued that the precarious calm brought to Tripoli’s volatile neighborhoods by the Army’s deployment following a weekend of gory fighting between supporters and opponents of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad is unlikely to hold. They painted a dim picture, not ruling out a renewal of violence and saying the next round of clashes, if it takes place, will be detrimental.
“The Army should confront any future security breaches with cannons rather than rifles otherwise we will slip into strife,” said military expert Nizar Abdel- Kader.
Calm prevailed in Tripoli Monday after the Army deployed in the city’s restive neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, ending almost one week of clashes, the fiercest in a series that flared up periodically since Syria’s 20 month unrest erupted.
Tension between Alawite Jabal Mohsen and Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh has historical roots and dates back to the 1970s when Palestinian factions and the Syrian Army settled scores in Tripoli’s underprivileged quarters.
Sectarian feelings survived and became even more acute as the conflict in Syria turned wider and bloodier.
According to Kiwan, from now on tensions in neighboring Syria will directly manifest itself in Lebanon’s second largest city.
“The repercussions of any violence or major deterioration of the security situation in Syria will certainly be felt in Tripoli,” she said.
Fierce clashes broke out between the pro-Assad Tripoli area of Jabal Mohsen and its neighbors in Bab al-Tabbaneh, where the anti-Assad revolution wins sweeping support after news last week that a group of Lebanese Salafists from Tripoli and other north Lebanon regions were killed in an ambush by the Syrian army in the border region of Tal Kalakh.
Earlier this week, the Lebanese Army boosted its units in Tripoli hotspots and started implementing a security plan that will ensure stability in the city’s rival neighborhoods.
But Abdel-Kader is skeptical, saying the Army’s recent plan for the two impoverished areas will not prevent future outbursts.
“The Army is operating as a deterrence force preventing the two sides from attacking each other and this is isn’t the role of an army,” said the retired army general, adding that the military is urged to act more firmly.
Kiwan believes that this time the Army will be more resolute, adding that the latest deployment should be considered as a “test to the military.”
Kiwan said that following the weekend meeting of the Higher Defense Council, the Army was put at the forefront as it would no longer tolerate security breaches.
“The Army will use its weapons and this is a real test,” she added. “The Army will impose stability even if this means confrontation with the armed groups in Tripoli.”
In Abdel-Kader’s opinion, the security situation in Tripoli will once and for all become stable when the Army vigorously interferes to confiscate the weapons of all armed groups and arrest all those standing behind incitement from both sides.
IRIS’s Bitar concurs. He argued that the truce will remain fragile despite the army’s new security plan, as, according to the analyst, “it takes more than an army deployment to restore the Lebanese state’s legitimacy.”
Abdel-Kader, however, maintained that the Army plan would only be effective if it was part of a larger, more comprehensive strategy that would take the political aspect of the tension in Tripoli into consideration.
“Armed groups in Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen all have their political affiliations,” he explained. “Political groups that stand behind gunmen should stop all funding and weapon supplies and move away from inflammatory rhetoric.”
Abdel-Kader said only an “in-depth” political resolution of the crisis in Tripoli will provide enough cover for the Army to properly carry out its duties.
He added that in order for law and order to prevail anywhere both the Army and the judiciary should be provided with ample political cover.
“In the case of Tripoli, the Army must be able to arrest all those who damage stability and the judiciary should be able to summon and issue arrest warrants against them,” he said. “Only then we can consider that any security plan for Tripoli has succeeded.”
For Bitar, even a strong will to correct the situation in Tripoli does not necessarily warrant stability in the city.
He said that while the violence in Tripoli was a direct consequence of the events in Syria analysts and the public alike should resist the temptation to view these events as “merely a spillover beyond Lebanese control.”
“Lebanon has its substantial share of responsibility and the successive Lebanese governments failed the people of Tripoli and did not create conditions for the badly needed immunity.”
Bitar said when it comes to Tripoli there is every reason to be pessimistic. He added that underdevelopment, high poverty rates and the absence of economic opportunities for the city’s youth create the conditions for sectarianism and twisted political agendas to thrive.
“As long as the underlying causes of the violence are not addressed, the situation will remain unstable,” Bitar added. “Tripoli is extremely vulnerable and any incident can rekindle the flame of sectarian warfare.”