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In Lebanon, a proxy battle for Syria

Sectarian violence in Lebanon may resemble Syria's conflict, but residents say the real problems are poverty and neglect.

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Lebanese army tanks are deployed in the Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods in the coastal city of Tripoli, Lebanon, on Oct. 23, 2013. Tripoli is Lebanon's second largest city, home to roughly 500,000 people, but it frequently serves as a proxy battleground between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — The bustling shipyards and seaside cafes of this Mediterranean port lend the city a veneer of normalcy. But residents tell a different story — one of extreme poverty, state neglect and vicious sectarian violence.

The northern city of Tripoli is Lebanon's second largest, home to roughly 500,000 people. It is also the poorest city in the country, and frequently serves as a proxy battleground between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hundreds of Lebanese have been killed and injured in Syria-linked violence here in the past two years.

Residents and analysts, however, point not to the conflict in Syria but to government neglect and poverty as the root of the city's festering problems. And though the Lebanese government last year approved $100 million in development funding for Tripoli, residents here say there is nothing to show for it.

A report released late last year by the United Nation's Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) and the Arab Institute for Developing Cities found that 51 percent of Tripoli's residents get by on less than $4 a day. The report singles out the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood as the city's most destitute.

Tripoli's main sectarian flashpoint is, appropriately named, Syria Street — a thoroughfare that splits the rival pro- and anti-Assad neighborhoods of Bab Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen.

Many young men from Bab Tabbaneh have fought and died alongside the mostly Sunni Muslim rebels inside Syria. Meanwhile the hilltop neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen, an Alawite stronghold sympathetic to Assad, has long drawn support from the Assad family and is home to many retired Syrian military officers.

The scene reflects the situation in Syria almost perfectly, where rebels representing a mostly Sunni majority are fighting to topple Assad, who represents the minority Alawite, an ancient offshoot of Shiite Islam. The nearly 2-year-old conflict has so far killed about 70,000 people, according to the United Nations.

Lebanon has also long struggled with divisions between Sunnis and Shiites. Southern Lebanon is home to the Iranian-supported Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which today is the dominant force in the central government.

In a testament to the longevity of the fighting here, walls in Bab Tabbaneh today are plastered with crisp new posters of young men brandishing weapons. Next to them are torn, fading posters honoring the dead from previous battles. Sandbagged fighting positions built during last summer's clashes have become more complex, and permanent.

"Another fight with the terrorists in Jabal Mohsen is coming," Sheikh Bilal al-Masri told GlobalPost in his small, fortress-like apartment in Bab Tabbaneh. "I don't know if it will be next week or next month, but it is coming. Believe me."

This conflict, many analysts and residents say, could be tamed by more government attention to education, infrastructure and job growth.

Sheikh Bilal commands a small group of fighters, part of a large network of Sunni militants who fight along Syria Street. Most of his fighters are young, unemployed men in their late teens and early 20s. Recent UN surveys found that roughly 20 percent of men in Jabal Mohsen and Bab Tabbaneh are jobless.

According to the ESCWA report, 19 percent of Bab Tabbaneh residents are illiterate. This is in part by design, according to Lebanese political analyst Kamel Wazne. He said that during elections, politicians pay poor residents for their votes.

"Politicians are keeping the people of Tripoli illiterate as a way to guarantee that they will vote. During elections, [politicians] rent voters and then they disappear until the next election cycle," he said.

Parliamentary polls are scheduled for June.

“No government can initiate work programs and create jobs without stability and security," says Mustafa Alloush, a former lawmaker from Tripoli aligned with ex-Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Future Movement. "After that, it's up to the private sector to provide these opportunities."

Across town, in the once upscale district of Al Mina, residents and small business owners also complain of state neglect. They said a deteriorating security situation threatens their livelihoods. The owner of a café in Al Mina, when asked about a proposed government-private sector plan to invest $300 million into revitalizing the corniche with new shops and restaurants, simply laughed.

While residents in Al Mina agree that more jobs are a solution, they worry that private sector investment only invites corruption.

"They just want to do the same thing they did in Beirut," he said, referring to the controversial reconstruction of downtown Beirut by the Hariri family after this country's 15-year civil war. "None of them care about us here. They are only concerned with making more money." 

The man asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic. Like almost every other establishment nearby, posters of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and his son Saad, hang above his café. The prevalence of high-end clothing and furniture shops in Al Mina contrasts sharply with the bullet-scarred streets of Bab Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, which are just minutes away.

"The structure for economic growth — basic needs, health, education, jobs — has not materialized in a way that provides for these people to engage with the general population," Wazne said. "Tripoli is not treated as a part of Lebanon."

Last month, the Lebanese government failed to follow through with a material compensation offer to residents of Bab Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen for the destruction wrought on their respective neighborhoods. Since then, the prime minister and top security officials have held meetings focused on the deteriorating situation in the city, though no concrete plans have been announced.

"Lebanon is a mafia state at the highest level," Wazne said. "And Tripoli feels this more than anywhere else.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/lebanon/130301/lebanon-proxy-battle-syria-civil-war-conflict-zones-elections