TRIPOLI, Lebanon: During clashes that shook the city of Tripoli in recent weeks, the neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen rose to notoriety as the main battlegrounds.
However, the fight against the Arab Democratic Party of Jabal Mohsen is not carried out solely through Bab al-Tabbaneh, but rather across several fronts that encircle the “jabal” or hill which houses much of the city’s Alawite community.
It is the districts of Shaarani, Baqqar, Riva, Mankoubin and Malouleh that tip the balance during the fighting.
While some say that supporters of March 14 groups and Salafist cells are leading the fight against the ADP, the commanders of areas and their fighters are not necessarily affiliated with those movements, but rather to their rivals such as, for example, Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
According to residents, fighters and security forces, Hezbollah and Mikati supporters in Tripoli are arming and financing groups that are taking a part in clashes with the pro-Bashar Assad fighters from Jabal Mohsen.
In the Jabal, accusations are also rife that members of the Free Syrian Army are fighting alongside their rivals.
The fighting, the heaviest in recent years, has raised fears that the 15-month unrest in Syria has spilled into Lebanon.
A veteran Bab al-Tabbaneh fighter, who refused to be identified, maintains that during conflicts all political alliances and considerations are erased.
The fighter says Tripoli is a small city and the political allegiances of individuals and groups are known to all. “There’s a kind of implicit agreement that intra-fighting among Sunnis is strictly forbidden,” he says. “As long as you don’t point your gun at your own people, I’ve got nothing to do with you and your political affiliations don’t interest me.”
Commanders of the Riva area of Tripoli, Khaled al-Ali, Abu Jihad Dandashi, and the latter’s brother Raed Dandashi, who is in charge of the Baqqar axis, are all believed to have ties with Mikati’s Azm Foundation.
When contacted by The Daily Star, officials at the Azm Foundation, which offers an array of social services, denied any knowledge of the Dandashi brothers or of Ali.
Abu Jihad Dandashi also denies any ties with Azm, but his brother Raed, who limps due to serious wounds during fighting last month, says he approached the Azm Foundation several times to secure “some kind of assistance” for the needy in his area.
Raed is quickly interrupted by his older brother. He shifts the focus to Khaled al-Ali, saying that Ali, better known as Abu Bakr, had been on Mikati’s payroll for quite some time as he was in charge of distributing humanitarian assistance in the neighborhoods of Qibbeh and Riva.
Abu Bakr declined several interview attempts by The Daily Star.
“Nowadays the situation is tense and people feel so threatened that they prefer using any money they get to buy arms rather than to buy medication or visit the doctor,” Abu Jihad says.
The Bab al-Tabbaneh fighter points to the fact that when the Army imposed a cease-fire in May, groups affiliated with Azm were “the last ones to abide by it.”
Riva, which towers over Jabal Mohsen from the north, was the site of the most brutal fighting, as evidenced by the severe damage to buildings struck by RPGs. This amount of damage is unseen even on Syria Street, the fault line separating the mostly Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite Jabal Mohsen.
The fighters of the Riva area are of a rare type. Abu Jihad’s are more determined, better trained and apparently better armed than the Tabbaneh fighters, for example.
Abu Jihad’s team seems highly influenced by Hezbollah’s tactics and traditions. Impressive discipline, physical fitness, and even their outfits themselves – beige boots and caps – are all an attempt to emulate Hezbollah.
Two giant printed Google maps of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen hang close to one another in Abu Jihad’s headquarters, a large apartment in one of Riva’s battered buildings.
“We have retired military personnel training the shabab (young men),” says Abu Jihad, who argues that it was entirely legitimate for the men of Tripoli to take up arms to protect their “territory and dignity” against ADP “provocations.”
Although Khaled Dandashi confides that he is not entirely pleased with the warfare in Tripoli and hopes it ends at some point, his brother Abu Jihad is not of the same mind.
Khaled blames politicians from across the spectrum for working to ignite sectarian feelings.
“They want us poor people to disarm Hezbollah,” he says.
His brother Abu Jihad, on the other hand, is not troubled by the clashes and vows that new kinds of weapons and fighting techniques will be used in the next round of confrontations with Jabal Mohsen, should they erupt.
He swears he was forced to sell land in the border area of Wadi Khaled in order to buy what he calls the “new kinds of weapons” he will use against Jabal Mohsen.
“For now we are giving the Lebanese Army a chance to protect us,” the fighter continues. “But if [the ADP] shoots at us and the Army fails to respond, we won’t stand idle.”
He says the weapons used against Jabal Mohsen are as “sacred” as the weapons Hezbollah uses in its fight against Israel.
“We’ll show them that our arms too are sacred, that just like them we carry weapons for a cause, and that we too have limits on when we use them,” Abu Jihad adds, before excusing himself to answer an urgent phone call.