Lebanon / Places We Go

Visiting Tripoli, Lebanon

Tripoli is also known as Trablous… And despite being Lebanon’s second largest city, very few outsiders make the journey up to Lebanon’s north to pay a visit.


Evidence of settlement here goes back to the 14th century BC, but Tripoli’s past likely goes back much further.

Today, Tripoli is a conservative city comprised primarily of Sunni Muslims. It is perhaps not surprising that the pro-Arab nationalist forces, led by Rashid Karami, based themselves here in the civil war of 1958 and were not dislodged from the city’s labyrinth of old streets until after several weeks of fighting.




This is just off of Tell Square in the Old City:


Like any self-respecting city in the Middle East, Tripoli has a great souq to be explored:





One specialty of Tripoli is the production of soap. Below a vendor of these soaps is presenting some of the various soaps to us and explaining their properties:


These guys are so charming and engaging that despite knowing you are being led along a sales process, you still eagerly participate.

This man is cutting slabs of recently created soap into consumer-friendly sizes:


As alluded to above, Tripoli is no stranger to conflict. In the 1975-1990 round of warfare, Tripoli suffered extensive damage – particularly during inter-Palestinian battles in 1983. Both during and after the civil war, the population of Tripoli increased significantly as refugees, primarily Palestinian, poured in. Most of these Palestinian refugees reside today in the UNRWA-administered Beddawi and Nahr el-Bared refugee camps on the outskirts of the city.

In May of 2007, Palestinian militants, allegedly linked to al Qaeda, and Lebanese police began battling it out in the streets of Tripoli, before fighting moved to the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp. The Lebanese military was finally able to regain control of the camp in September 2007 after months of fighting.

The “camps” in Lebanon don’t really look much like camps at all having been in place for decades in some instances. They have multi-story permanent structures, shops, paved streets, electricity, running water and trash collection services:



Some of the more evident damage from the bullets, rockets, mortars and artillery utilized in the many battles of the past decades in Tripoli:




And then, of course, there is Oscar Niemeyer’s fantastic creation in Tripoli that was itself a victim of the Lebanese civil war in that it was abandoned at the outbreak of hostilities in 1975 and never completed. However, the site today is, if anything, enhanced by its abandoned status, so this may be one war victim we need not mourn.

6 thoughts on “Visiting Tripoli, Lebanon

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  3. The Syrian civil war is spreading to Tripoli…

    The Syrian conflict on the streets of Lebanon
    By Sue Turton on 2012-02-11

    [Al Jazeera]

    The sprawling housing estate of Bab al-Tebbeneh north of Tripoli sits cheek-by-jowl alongside the Jabal Mohsen estate. They are neighbours but their allegiances are worlds apart.

    To get to the street that split the two communities we have to dart in and out of side streets and alleyways, workshops and backrooms. We sprint through the gaps between the high rise apartment blocks, lest the snipers pick us off. Even the dogs run faster here, sensing the fear.

    At times the gunfire is deafening as the residents let off a few rounds to let the guys sitting in the opposite estate know that they’re still there. Snipers reply, sometimes inadvertently hitting the minarets of one of the estates’ many mosques.

    Inner city estates all over the world have gangs that fight against other estates, but rarely with RPGs and AK-47s, and rarely in the name of another country’s conflict.

    The flag of the Syrian opposition hangs outside some homes in Bab al-Tebbeneh. Residents here are vehemently against President Assad’s regime and against Hezbollah, which support his regime. Their neighbours are Assad loyalists. The sight of a banner hung on Thursday night that read “Slaughterer” next to a picture of Assad provoked an angry response in Jabal Mohsen. It didn’t take much for that anger to turn to violence.

    Women and children look down from their balconies, too scared to come out onto the streets. One apartment above our heads bears the scars of the overnight violence. Two large holes mark where RPGs slammed through the wall at 6am that morning. The family sleeping inside escaped unharmed.

    The Lebanese army try to intervene, after asking some of Tebbeneh’s gunmen to allow them into the estate. You begin to wonder who is in charge.

    Efforts to stop the clashes result in six injured soldiers. Two civilians are killed and over twenty injured.

    A Jabal Mohsen MP blames the clashes on the anti Syrian regime faction – they couldn’t defend Homs so they were attacking those who sympathised with Assad. There are certainly many residents who have family and friends in that besieged city. And a week of intense bombardments there is having an impact eighty kilometres west in this Lebanese city.

    But the violence here won’t help overthrow a regime, nor will it persuade the international community to intervene. It merely serves to remind us that Syria sits slap-bang in the middle of a very volatile region and the threat of the conflict spilling into neighbouring countries is all too real.

  4. More on this developing story from the Wall Street Journal…

    FEBRUARY 18, 2012
    Syrian Conflict Spills to Neighbors

    TRIPOLI, Lebanon—Syria’s civil conflict is rapidly expanding into a regional proxy battle that threatens to cleave neighboring countries, including Lebanon and Iraq, as their populations harden along sectarian lines.

    Syria’s struggle is reopening sectarian fault lines in places like Tripoli, a city in northern Lebanon where tensions have long simmered. The area’s minority Alawite residents belong to the same Muslim offshoot sect as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and have long supported the family regime. Meanwhile, Sunni residents in recent months have provided shelter, hospitals and a base for arms trade to Syrian rebels, all sides acknowledge.

    The rancor broke into the open last weekend, resulting in two days of gunbattles that left three people dead. The fighting was centered on Tripoli’s Syria Street—a demarcation line between local Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods that extends, metaphorically, to the top levels of Lebanon’s government and across the Middle East.

    “If Syria is headed to civil war, then Lebanon is headed to civil war, too,” said Abu Yasser, a Syrian refugee who helped found the Lebanon chapter of a relief group for besieged Syrian populations.

    Fighting in Syria continued Thursday, with government forces attacking the southern city of Deraa and pounding Homs for the second week, activists said. The Local Coordination Committees, an activist network, put the total death toll across Syria on Thursday at 63.

    The United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a nonbinding resolution Thursday that condemned “widespread and systematic violation of human rights” in Syria and calls on Mr. Assad to step aside. “Change must now come,” said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. “Bashar al-Assad has never been more isolated.”

    Russia was among 12 of the 193 member countries to vote against the resolution, as was China, which said Thursday it would send its foreign minister to Syria for talks on Friday and Saturday. Venezuela appeared to be mounting its own support of Mr. Assad, dispatching an oil-products tanker to Syria, according to shipping records.

    Even as international fears grow of a Syrian civil war, neighbors are choosing sides. Iran has pledged its support to Mr. Assad, and Western officials have accused Tehran of aiding Damascus in its crackdown on dissent.

    Many of the region’s Sunnis are arrayed against Syria’s leader, including the kingdoms of the Gulf, backed by the U.S. and Europe, as well as a longtime nemesis of these powers. On Thursday, U.S. intelligence officials said they now believe al Qaeda operatives are joining the battle against the Assad regime. “We believe that al Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria,” James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a Senate hearing, the most direct connection yet drawn by U.S. officials between terrorist groups and the Syrian opposition. Recent explosions on security and police installations in Damascus and Aleppo, he said, “had all the earmarks of an al Qaeda-like attack.”

    Iraqis, meanwhile, have allegedly been arming both sides of the Syrian conflict. Sunni leaders in Iraq have claimed to be arming the opposition to Mr. Assad. Syrian opposition members have accused Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of aiding Mr. Assad by turning a blind eye to the passage of Iraqi Shiite militiamen, as well as Iranian fighters and weapons transiting to Syria through Iraq, to assist Mr. Assad in his crackdown. Iraqi officials deny this.

    These battle lines run through northern Lebanon, which shares a porous border with Syria. In the city of Tripoli, many Lebanese Alawites, a group considered a Shiite-offshoot sect, are allied with Hezbollah, the Shiite militant and political group that holds heavy sway in Lebanon’s government.

    Sunnis in Tripoli have mobilized to shelter Syrian refugees and have helped organize private hospital facilities for the wounded Syrian opposition fighters and activists, say residents and Syrian refugees.

    Farther north, close to the border with Syria, Syrian Army defectors and refugees have carved out a swath of land in Wadi Khaled, across the border from the besieged Syrian city of Homs, according to residents. The vast valley region has become an operational base for Syrian rebel fighters and weapons smugglers, these residents say. Lebanon is one of the main sources for arms for Syria’s rebels, according to Western officials and opposition activists.

    The United Nations Refugee Agency says 6,133 Syrians are registered in north Lebanon. Syrian activists say the actual number is at least twice that and growing.

    Some Lebanese officials fear the area could develop into a lawless enclave outside the central government’s control, similar to the Palestinian refugee camps that played a role in sparking Lebanon’s civil war in 1975. Back then, the influx of Palestinians, including scores of armed militants using Lebanon as a base for attacks against Israel, upended the country’s delicate demographic balance, provoked a civil war and dragged Lebanon into war with Israel.

    In Tripoli, violent sectarian feuding isn’t new. But as solidarity rallies for Syria’s opposition have grown more frequent, residents of rival neighborhoods described a newfound resolve to settle scores.

    The latest violence started when residents in the Sunni area unfurled a banner from a building that read “Assad the Butcher,” say some of the people involved in the clashes.

    On Feb. 10, deadly gunbattles between these pro- and anti-Assad factions prompted the Lebanese army to intervene. The army pulled in to the streets of Tripoli to guard a cease-fire. A week earlier, it had deployed to Syria’s northeastern border at Wadi Khaled, in what appeared to be the first such mobilization there in decades.

    Residents say the moves are the manifestation of a larger struggle between factions of their government, which rules Lebanon in an increasingly shaky power-sharing agreement. Under the deal, the country’s Shiite-Hezbollah-led alliance influences intelligence services as well as the military. Its rivals, a Sunni Muslim and Christian alliance, control internal security.

    Officially, Lebanon’s government has held to neutrality in the Syria conflict. But different government institutions, residents say, are weighing in on respective sides.

    In recent weeks, at least 12 wounded Syrian opposition activists bound for hospitals in Lebanon have been nabbed en route by military intelligence or Hezbollah members, said Abu Yasser, the Syrian medical relief worker in Lebanon, and others in his Syrian opposition-run aid commission.

    Lebanon’s interior ministry, which is dominated by Hezbollah’s rivals, publicly accused the Syrian embassy in Beirut of kidnapping three Syrian opposition activists in Lebanon last year, a charge the embassy denied. The clashes and protests that resulted forced the embassy late last year to relocate outside of Beirut.

    Hezbollah officials have been restricted in speaking to the media, except through formal published statements. It didn’t comment on the alleged kidnappings.

    Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Thursday accused his political rivals of funding and arming Syria’s opposition, escalating the conflict there while “plunging Lebanon into war.”

    Lebanon’s dueling camps have also sparred over the deployment of the army on Feb. 4 along the northern border.

    The government said the border deployment was to monitor the security situation and reassure residents, Lebanon’s state-run news agency reported. But Lebanon’s pro-Syrian opposition factions suspected the army’s real motives were different, as reports emerged that the deployment was restricting the movement of refugees, aid, fighters and the wounded, across the border.

    They said the military deployed only after Syria’s ambassador met with Lebanese officials to relay Syrian concerns that border smuggling was helping arm militant groups.

    “We objected immediately, saying: Are you spreading out on the border to protect Lebanon or in response to the demands of Syrian regime?” said Khaled Daher, a parliamentarian with the anti-Hezbollah Future Movement.

    Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Sheikh Naim Qassem, praised the army. “We reject using Lebanon as an arena for attacking others,” Sheikh Naim, who doesn’t hold a government position, told the state news agency.

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  6. Lebanon’s Little Syria
    Bashar al-Assad’s enemies and allies are battling it out in the flashpoint city of Tripoli.
    BY EMILE HOKAYEM | MAY 15, 2012

    Most Lebanese certainly wished otherwise, but it was only a matter of time before the bloodshed that has overwhelmed Syria for the past 15 months arrived at their doorstep. The conflict has now come to the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, which possesses a social fabric and history that make it fertile ground for the long-awaited proxy war between enemies and allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

    The latest conflagration was triggered by the May 12 arrest of previously unknown Sunni Islamist activist Shadi al-Mawlawi and five others by Lebanon’s General Security Directorate (GSD). Within hours of Mawlawi’s arrest, Sunni protesters took to the streets, blocked the highway, and burned tires to demand his immediate release — a call joined by the city’s politicians and clerics. The standoff soon spiraled out of control: Armed men deployed in the poor Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh, battling with gunmen of the adjacent district of Jabal Mohsen, which is inhabited by staunchly pro-Assad members of Lebanon’s small Alawite community. So far, the conflict, which has escalated to include rocket-propelled grenade and mortar attacks, has left five people dead and more than 100 wounded.

    But there’s more to this conflict than meets the eye. It seems that GSD officers mounted a trap — Mawlawi was lured to a social services center under the pretext he would receive health care — and had no valid warrant at the time of the arrest. The agency later leaked that Mawlawi had returned days ago from Syria, where he allegedly partook in the rebellion, though it is impossible to confirm these claims. Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister, Najib Mikati, a native of Tripoli, called the manner of the arrest “unacceptable,” adding that he “rejected and condemned [it]” during a meeting of Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council, the top body in charge of internal and external security. Notwithstanding this torrent of words, a military prosecutor charged the six men on May 14 with belonging to an “armed terrorist organization” and “plotting to carry out terrorist acts inside and outside of Lebanon.” A Lebanese newspaper on May 15 quoted intelligence sources saying Mawlawi confessed to the accusations.

    The arresting party is, to say the least, controversial. GSD is one of Lebanon’s many competing security agencies, and it is perceived as the internal arm of Hezbollah. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who previously served as Hezbollah’s and other Shiite factions’ go-to man in military intelligence, heads the organization, which has a broad mandate that includes monitoring political activity, foreigners, and the media. An anti-Assad Lebanese parliamentarian on May 14 laid the blame for the conflict squarely at Ibrahim’s feet, accusing him of “following a Syrian agenda in Lebanon.”

    In the absence of any history of impartial justice — other security agencies are similarly corrupt and dominated by other sects — Tripoli residents have focused their anger on the GSD for overstepping its authority. One friend in the city angrily asked me on May 14: “Does the Internal Security Forces [an agency seen as sympathetic to anti-Assad groups and the Sunni community] dare arrest someone in the south or Dahiyeh [the Hezbollah-controlled suburbs of Beirut]? No. So why is General Security even operating here?”

    Lebanon’s own pathologies have been exacerbated by the bloody crisis next door. Northern Lebanon has been particularly welcoming of the Syrian opposition, rebels and refugees alike. This is not surprising. The region suffered greatly during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, notably in the 1980s when a brutal war arrayed Islamist and Palestinian factions against the ultimately victorious Syrian military and its Lebanese Alawite allies.

    Tripoli and the Sunni-dominated north, in general, have predictably become an anti-Assad and anti-Hezbollah bastion since Syrian troops withdrew in 2005. Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, the city and its suburbs have seen many pro-revolution rallies, and many roads are decorated with anti-Assad slogans and flags, some espousing extreme sectarian views. Unsurprisingly in this city on the edge, which is also plagued by poverty and state neglect, deadly clashes have repeatedly occurred between Sunni and Alawite gunmen in recent months.

    On my visits to the areas even closer to the Syrian border, further north and east of Tripoli, the local population’s enthusiasm for the revolution was unmistakable. This was particularly true in the region of Wadi Khaled, from where one can see the Syrian city of Homs and which has provided shelter for many of the refugees fleeing the military crackdown on that city and nearby villages. In the absence of the state, traditional networks supply the help needed. Syrian refugees stay in mosques and private homes; members of the Free Syrian Army regroup and find respite; and injured civilians and rebels receive medical care and sustenance.

    Assad’s Lebanese allies have tried, unconvincingly, to paint all this activity as the work of Islamist radicals. Asked about the accusations by the pro-Assad Lebanese defense minister that al Qaeda was running the smuggling to Syria, a village chief laughingly responded, “We are doing all what this villain says, except that we are not al Qaeda or extremists.”

    He has a point: Residents of Wadi Khaled belong to tribes living on both sides of the border, and they support the Syrian rebels out of kinship rather than religious ideology. Smugglers in the area once transported cheap Syrian goods and gasoline into Lebanon — when the uprising erupted, they simply reversed the flow. Now they carry everything from weaponry to medical equipment and drugs across the minefields that the Syrian regime has laid along the border, bringing goods and supplies to the hot zones around the western Syrian cities of Homs and Qusayr. It should come as no surprise that the Lebanese Navy recently seized a ship bound for Tripoli from Libya that was carrying arms presumably destined for Syria.

    The more radical Sunnis reside further to the south, in the rugged mountains of Dinniyeh and in the slums of Tripoli (though, of course, many moderate Sunnis live alongside them as well). There, the Salafi influence is visible to anyone who drives through. In December 1999, Islamist militants fought fiercely against the Lebanese military, backed by Syrian forces. Dozens were killed and hundreds arrested. In 2007, a shadowy jihadi group, Fatah al-Islam, took over the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared and battled the Lebanese Army for four months. Hundreds were killed in vicious fighting, and the camp was almost entirely destroyed. According to Lebanese intelligence, Fatah al-Islam members are now fighting alongside the rebellion in Syria, where a few were reportedly killed in April. The irony is not lost on many Lebanese who suspect, with good reason, Syrian intelligence of having contributed to its rise.

    Ever since Syria’s uprising began, Hezbollah and its allies in the Lebanese government have wanted to see a more forceful state crackdown on anti-Assad activities. This, however, would fatally destabilize a government over which they wield decisive influence — alienating their shrinking number of Sunni allies at the risk of further inflaming sectarian passions. For his part, Prime Minister Mikati has tried to tread a thin line between assuaging his Sunni constituency and his pro-Assad allies in government, touting a shaky policy of neutrality and “dissociation” from developments in Syria. This has not prevented Lebanon’s security agencies from monitoring, harassing, and even aiding in the rendition of Syrian dissidents, to the anger of the country’s large anti-Assad constituency.

    The possibility that the violence in Tripoli will spread across Lebanon remains limited, but the situation is undeniably deteriorating. Mikati’s strategy depends on the ability and willingness of each faction to control the more destructive tendencies of its followers. As the case of Tripoli demonstrates, however, this is easier said than done: Sunni groups, feeling triumphant or angry, may think (mistakenly) the time is opportune to strike a blow against their rivals at home, as well as Assad abroad. Hezbollah, militarily strong but politically on the defensive, may decide that preemptive action is warranted. Any of the two scenarios would throw Lebanon into a sectarian hell.

    Tripoli’s descent into violence reveals two other ominous trends: the fragmentation of Sunni politics and the weakening of its mainstream politicians. Mikati, who came to power by displacing the vehemently anti-Assad Saad Hariri in January 2011, is one contender for the loyalties of Lebanon’s Sunnis, as is the Lebanese finance minister, Mohammad Safadi, another Tripoli native and wealthy candidate for the premiership. Hariri remains a powerful figure, but his standing has taken a hit because of his lackluster performance and a long absence from the country. All three are increasingly seen as weak, indecisive defenders of their sect.

    This provides an opening for radical Sunni groups. Tripoli already plays host to several competing Salafi factions. Incredibly, one group — Harakat al-Tawhid — is aligned with Hezbollah. Most, however, are vehemently anti-Shiite and anti-Alawite. Omar Bakri Muhammad, a Syrian Salafi cleric who was expelled from Britain for his support for al Qaeda and a darling of the Western media for his fluency in English, resides in Tripoli. Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, a previously unknown Salafi cleric from the southern city of Saida, has emerged as a vociferous champion of Syria’s revolutionaries and a challenger of Hariri’s political dominance in the city.

    The Sunni gangs fighting on the streets of Tripoli are not jihadi outfits — yet. Rather, they are a mishmash of armed political activists, religious militants, and neighborhood strongmen who think they are protecting their communities. But the growth of Salafi movements would not only adversely affect Lebanon’s fragile equilibrium — it could well taint the Syrian revolution. It would provide Assad with timely evidence that his domestic opponents are not struggling for freedom and democracy, but are allied with violent, foreign Salafists who object to his government on fundamentalist religious grounds.

    In the meantime, the Lebanese military has been called in to rescue Tripoli. The Lebanese Army is generally seen as the country’s least politicized and least sectarian security force, though this image suffered when it stood idle as Hezbollah and its allies invaded Beirut in May 2008. Its deployment on the streets of Tripoli may contain the clashes for the moment, but it will merely serve as a Band-Aid — the military will neither seize weaponry nor arrest militiamen involved in the fighting, thus doing nothing to prevent the same bloody cycle from repeating itself.

    The sad fact is that there are precious few saviors willing to guide Lebanon through this crisis. The military on which many Lebanese have pinned their hopes reflects, rather than transcends, the country’s many ills. Nor can the Lebanese count on their politicians — the Syrian crisis has crystallized the existing divides in Lebanon, with each side hoping that its allies next door will come out on top in the conflict. It looks like all sides will be disappointed — with little prospect of a game-changing development, the Syrian revolution will likely gain in complexity and violence, slowly dragging Lebanon down with it.

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