Fear And Loathing In Lebanon

Sulome Anderson checks in from Tripoli, the northern Lebanese town that has become a microcosm of the Syrian civil war and which today “seems to lie in ISIS’s shadow”:

Although the extremist and ultraviolent Sunni group has few open supporters here, the appearance of pro-ISIS paraphernalia and graffiti, the clash last month in the Bekaa, and the fact that Tripoli’s Sunni-majority population has a historical tendency toward radicalism, have raised worries that the group might gain a foothold here and send the city into a spiral of deepening violence.

Local tensions in Tripoli follow essentially the same ethnic lines as those in Syria’s war:

Sunni citizens largely support the increasingly fundamentalist Syrian opposition — ISIS being the most notoriously brutal of the groups fighting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad; meanwhile, the Alawites of the Jabal Mohsen neighborhood are overwhelmingly sympathetic to Assad’s regime (the Syrian leader is Alawite) and its Hezbollah allies. There are frequent and bloody gunfights between Jabal Mohsen and the Sunni district of Bab el-Tabbeneh, which border each other. Fearing violence would engulf Tripoli and potentially spread to other regions in Lebanon, the army moved in, establishing a security zone within the city limits last year. That hasn’t stopped the bloodshed, though, and the situation in Arsal triggered fresh clashes at the end of August, in which an 8-year-old girl was killed.

Also, the local Christian community is feeling threatened in a way it never has before:

Tripoli’s Christian population has been a bit skittish lately. Several churches were vandalized at the beginning of September, their walls spray-painted with ominous threats including “The Islamic State is coming” and “We come to slaughter you, you worshippers of the cross.” Crosses were allegedly burned in retaliation for the #BurnISISFlag social media movement, Lebanon’s version of the Ice Bucket Challenge, in which people have been posting videos and pictures of themselves setting fire to the group’s banner.

Father Samir Hajjar sits in the priest’s quarters of the city’s Syriac Orthodox Church, one of the buildings that was vandalized. He is measured about the incident, but admits it was worrying. “At first, we thought this could just be ordinary vandals, or the work of children,” he says. “I’ve been here 17 years, and no one bothers us. We respect our neighbors and they respect us. But this graffiti on the walls of all the churches, that’s not children’s work. They used stencils. It’s a serious matter.”