The latest bout of violence in Tripoli in mid-November once again refocused attention on the beleaguered city, in particular the flashpoint combat zones of the Alawite-populated Jabal Mohsen and the surrounding Sunni areas of Bab Al Tabbaneh, Qobbe and Badawi. The fighting this time around was among the most intense yet seen according to combatants on both sides.
The frequency of fighting between the Alawite and Sunni communities in Tripoli has turned the city in the eyes of many into the number one flashpoint in the country. Indeed, the fighting in Tripoli is a tragedy for those living there, but crucially it does not spread to other areas. The clashes in Tripoli are invariably contained to one area, centered on Jabal Mohsen. That may not be a comfort for the residents but it dampens the threat the Tripoli fighting poses to the rest of the country. However, there is another latent flashpoint that has the potential to ignite a chain reaction of fighting that could sweep across much of the country.
The northern Bekaa currently faces a bizarre and risky situation. The western flank of the northern Bekaa, centered in Hermel, is Shia-populated and an area of strong support for Hezbollah. The eastern flank from Arsal to Masharih Al Qaa has a large Sunni population and is a bedrock of support for the armed opposition in Syria. Indeed, not a small number of residents from the area have joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and are fighting inside Syria.
Between August and October, there was heavy fighting just across the border in the villages and hamlets around the town of Qusayr. These villages are populated by a mix of Syrian Alawites, Sunnis and Christians, as well as Lebanese Shias and Sunnis. In other words, Lebanese Shia members of Hezbollah (and a few allied fighters from the Bekaa’s Shia tribes) were fighting Lebanese Sunnis serving with the FSA. When both sides withdraw to their respective areas on the Lebanese side of the border, they eye each other warily — if for now peacefully — across an expanse of uninhabited flat stony ground some six kilometers wide.
Both sides appear to understand the implications of allowing the fighting in Syria to spread into the northern Bekaa. Masharih Al Qaa, a mainly Sunni area of arable fields and orchards studded with small farms, includes a mosque on the side of the main road that has been transformed into a Hezbollah command post, replete with yellow party flags and a picture of assassinated Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah. Although the mosque is in an area dominated by FSA militants and supporters, no one has attacked it. The FSA militants say they realize such a step would trigger a conflict in the northern Bekaa. By the same token, Hezbollah supporters in Hermel say they will not pursue FSA fighters hiding out in Masharih Al Qaa or Arsal because they acknowledge such a step would trigger a civil war.
Yet the standoff is inherently unstable and prone to miscalculation by one side, especially if clashes just across the border intensify. The pocket of territory across the border is strategically significant in the context of the war in Syria. It abuts the critical highway that links Damascus to Tartous on the Mediterranean coast, a potential escape route for the Assad regime if it can no longer hold the capital and chooses to retreat to the Alawite mountains between Tartous and Latakia. For the Syrian opposition, control over the Qusayr district allows the free flow of weapons and militants from Lebanon to the Sunni-populated belt stretching north from Homs to Idlib and Aleppo. There have been reports that the Jabhat Al Nusra Islamist front is making its way toward the Qusayr pocket and the area west of Damascus, bringing it closer to Hezbollah and potentially aggravating a fraught situation even further.
As well, the Shia and Sunni communities in the Bekaa are relatively heavily militarized. The Shias have Hezbollah, but many Sunnis in the Bekaa, especially from the villages of the central Bekaa, such as Majdal Anjar, have gained combat experience not just in Syria but earlier in Iraq and are a fiercer breed than their co-religionists in the coastal cities.
Given the demographics of the valley, it is easy to see how an incident in the northern Bekaa could quickly spread southwards engulfing the overlapping Sunni and Shia communities.
The fighting in Tripoli catches the attention and headlines, but it is the northern Bekaa that should bear closer attention.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London