Pressures in Syria affect Alawites in Lebanon
TRIPOLI, LEBANON // Pictures of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad stare out from posters while a Syrian flag fluttered nearby.
"We are for you, Abu Hafez" read a banner, referring to a nickname for the Syrian president.
As pressure mounts on the Syrian regime, it is clear whom many support in Jebel Mohsen in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.
This neighbourhood is home to many of the city's Alawite population - followers of the same offshoot of Shiite Islam as the Al Assad dynasty. The majority of Tripoli's population of about 500,000 is Sunni. But the city is also home to tens of thousands of Alawites, according to community leaders, although there are no official figures.
One potential flashpoint is around the small enclave of Jebel Mohsen, which sits perched atop a hill surrounded by majority Sunni neighbourhoods, where regular demonstrations against the Assad regime have been taking place.
On Thursday night, sectarian tensions were again heightened, local residents said, when a group from Jebel Mohsen attempted to erect a picture of Mr Al Assad in an area overlooking their Sunni neighbours.
"When I see a picture of Bashar, who killed Muslims, we hate this and we refuse that these pictures should be displayed in Tripoli," said Sheikh Zakariya Al Masri, a Sunni religious leader who lives nearby. "If everything was normal in Syria then I don't care, but not under these circumstances."
Yousef, a 34-year-old from Jebel Mohsen, who works in downtown Tripoli, and did not want to give his surname, called the situation in the community tense.
"Everyone in the Arab world is worried, Lebanese people included," he said. "Lebanon will be affected if the Assad regime stays or goes ... I support Assad to remain because if he goes I think there will be war in Syria between all religions."
In mid-June, fighting broke out between armed opponents and supporters of the Al Assad regime in Jebel Mohsen and the adjoining Bab Al Tabbaneh neighbourhood, a Sunni stronghold. A mosque in the area still bears black marks after it was hit during the clashes that left at least three dead.
Lebanon's minority Alawite community gained political clout during Syria's 29-year military presence in the country, which ended in 2005. Elements of the community still look to Syria for support.
Meanwhile, radical Salafist elements are also known to be active among Tripoli's Sunni population. The densely populated city with high levels of poverty, is a "hotbed" for extremism, said Elias Hanna, a Lebanese strategic analyst and retired general.
"This place is fertile for clashes between Tripoli and Jebel Mohsen, but this is certainly not the first time," said Mr Hanna. "For now, everybody is ready and preparing for any scenario regarding Syria...Tripoli could be the clash point between Sunnis and Alawites, but it depends on what happens in Syria."
Tension between the Sunni and Alawite communities in Tripoli is not new. In 2008, months of bloody clashes that left dozens dead ended after a truce was signed between Sunni and Alawite leaders.
Members of both communities said they would not be the ones to instigate further violence.
"But, if something happens, then we have to defend ourselves," said Sheikh Al Masri. "When the Syrian regime falls shortly as we expect, we will not attack them unless they do something."
Abdel Latif Saleh, a local mukhtar or community leader from Jebel Mohsen, and member of the pro-Syrian Arab Democratic Party, downplayed any unrest in his neighbourhood. "The situation here is fine," he said. "From start to finish we are Lebanese. But we are friends of Syria because Syria is a country of resistance against Israel."
The Syrian government is coming under unprecedented diplomatic pressure, particularly in the wake of US and European calls for Bashar al Assad to step down. However, Mr Saleh, 37, and others in the Alawite community dismissed such actions.
Mr Saleh, 37, and others in the Alawite community believe what is happening in Syria "is Israel and the US trying to start their project for a new Middle East. Everything is normal there."
Just a few streets away in the nearby neighbourhood of Qoubba, Sheikh Al Masri, paints a very different picture of Syria.
"Muslims in Syria are under attack from the regime, from the Syrian government," he said. "The Muslims in Lebanon started to support them, especially in Tripoli...We support them vocally so people in Syria feel they can continue."
Sheikh Al Masri said he knew Syrians who fled the violence in their country and are now staying with relatives in Tripoli. "They told me that what we are seeing on the television is only a fraction of what is going on," he said.
However, back in Jebel Mohsen, Mr Saleh, who said he visited the besieged Syrian city of Homs last week expressed the opposing view.
"All what you see on television - don't believe it," he said.
Updated: August 21, 2011 04:00 AM