The recent bomb attack against the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and the outbreak of sectarian violence in Tripoli came as no surprise. UNIFIL itself was expecting to feel the backlash of the unrest sweeping the region, particularly the violence that is roiling neighboring Syria.
It is an uncomfortable fact of life for the peacekeeping force, with its European-heavy battalions, that it serves as a huge soft target for anyone that wants to send ‘messages’ to the international community at large. Indeed, since UNIFIL was expanded after the 2006 war from 2,000 peacekeepers, drawn mainly from Ghana and India, to more than 11,000 troops and a maritime component, force protection has dominated its agenda. There was a spate of actual and attempted bomb attacks against UNIFIL four years ago, most of them unprofessional and resulting in few casualties. The one exception was a highly-sophisticated bomb attack against the Spanish battalion that killed six peacekeepers, UNIFIL’s highest single day casualty toll since 1978, when it was established.
As usual, the perpetrators and motives of the latest bombing of an Italian UNIFIL convoy near Sidon remain unknown. But UNIFIL is expecting more attacks, especially if the regional situation deteriorates further.
The same applies to that perennial flashpoint between Jabal Mohsen and Bab Tebbaneh in Tripoli. The clashes that broke out on June 17between the Alawite community in Jabal Mohsen and the Sunnis of Bab Tebbaneh and neighboring Qobbe were widely anticipated.
The frontline between the two districts, marked by a string of raggedy bullet-pocked and unpopulated buildings, remains probably the most consistent and volatile flashpoint in Lebanon. There have been several bouts of fighting here over the past six years as Lebanon lurched from one political crisis to another. Who started the June 17 clashes that left six people dead, including a soldier and a 14-year-old boy, depends on whom you ask. The Alawites insist that the Sunnis shot first, while the Sunnis say the Alawites opened fire on a demonstration held to support the Syrian opposition movement.
Rifaat Eid, the convivial head of the Alawite community, accused leading Sunni politicians and clerics in Tripoli of fomenting anti-Alawite sentiment and distributing weapons to be used in street battles. He said that the Sunnis have been provoking the Alawites for months by firing occasional rocket-propelled grenades into Jabal Mohsen. “They want a war and they are preparing for it,” he said.
But wander down the hill into Bab Tebbaneh and you will hear the diametric opposite, with local residents claiming that it is the Alawites who have been firing the RPGs. During an earlier clash in 2008, one could hear Alawite combatants insisting that Saudi jihadists were fighting with their Sunni enemies in Bab Tebbaneh. But the Sunnis would insist with equal vigor that Iranians were taking pot shots at them from the heights of Jabal Mohsen.
There is a weary predictability about the fighting between these two communities, which consistently allow themselves to be exploited as pawns in a broader political struggle.
The formation of a new government after five months of bickering over the allocation of ministerial seats has already increased the levels of political vitriol.
Mouein Merhebi, a Future Movement MP from Akkar, recently accused Hezbollah of deploying 130mm artillery guns in the rugged and remote hills southwest of Hermel, specifically Wadi Fissane, Marjhine and Ayoun Oghosh. The suspicion, of course, is that Hezbollah could use the cannons against the Sunnis of Akkar and Dinnieh. Hezbollah dismissed the claim as fabricated and ridiculous.
Take a drive along the remote trails winding through the ochre-hued hills of Hermel, studded with dark green juniper trees, and no artillery guns are to be seen. If they exist, they are well hidden. Still, talk to Sunnis living on the western side of the mountain ridge that separates Dinnieh from Hermel and you will receive avid assurances that Hezbollah’s artillery guns are pointed at them. But cross over to the eastern side of the ridge and chat to local Shia farmers and the claims are dismissed out of hand.
Like all unproven and politically-charged accusations and counter-claims in Lebanon, truth lies in the eye of the beholder.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for
The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London