For more background, please refer to Lebanon’s Pro-Assad Islamists, which was published yesterday.

According to Lebanese security sources, by the time the Syrian revolution began in March 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Lebanese allies, such as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia, could count on the support of perhaps 1,000 to 1,500 Sunni fighters in Tripoli.

These militants were meticulously spread throughout the city’s most strategic locations. While the partisans of Sunni cleric Hashem Minkara controlled the port area of Mina, his counterpart, Bilal Shaaban, oversaw the city from the hilltop of Abu Samra. Another cleric, Mustafa Malas, held sway over the area of Miniyeh to the north of Tripoli, while three large clans, the Mori, Nashar, and Aswad families, wielded influence in their respective neighborhoods of Zahriyeh, the old city’s souks, and the Sunni stronghold of Bab al-Tabbaneh.

Lords of Tripoli

Critics of the Syrian regime have long accused these groups of “spying” on behalf of Damascus. But despite the constant tension between them and the anti-Assad Islamist environment, there has been little open conflict until recently. For years, the alliance between the pro-Assad militants on the one hand and Hezbollah and the Syrian regime on the other had earned the militants impunity, thanks to the military strength and government connections afforded by this partnership. This situation persisted long after the outbreak of conflict in Syria.

A year and a half ago, for instance, members of the Mori family started shooting at activists in the area of Zahriyeh who were flying the flag of the Syrian opposition. The Lebanese Army intervened by arresting those who instigated the violence and by confiscating two truckloads worth of weapons from the Mori office. Yet, given the Mori’s political connections, they were immediately released and their arms were swiftly returned.

Bitterness at this kind of injustice has inevitably fueled confrontations between Tripoli’s pro-Assad Islamists and their numerous opponents. As the war in Syria grew more ferocious and the pro-Assad camp in Lebanon weakened, the simmering intra-Sunni tension in Tripoli began to boil over into violence.

Wissam al-Hassan’s Death

The turning point came with the October 2012 assassination of Wissam al-Hassan—a high-ranking Sunni intelligence officer from nearby Koura who was close to former prime minister Saad al-Hariri’s political party, the Future Movement, and active in supporting the Syrian rebels. The Lebanese judiciary’s investigation is still ongoing, but many Lebanese Sunni Muslims immediately suspected that the bomb had been triggered by agents from Hezbollah and Syrian intelligence. In Tripoli, the news of Hassan’s killing sparked calls among Sunni militants for revenge against the local allies of Hezbollah and Damascus.

A large confrontation first took place at the headquarters of Shaaban’s Islamic Unification Movement (IUM, or harakat al-tawhid al-islami, often known only as Tawhid), a pro-Assad Islamist group. The confrontation cost the life of one of Shaaban’s top lieutenants, the cleric Abdel Razzaq Asmar. The headquarters of Minkara, who leads a breakaway cell from the IUM, were also violently targeted. Minkara himself was forced to flee his longtime stronghold in the Mina neighborhood.

The Mosque Bombings

Attacks on the Minkara group reached a new peak in the wake of an August 2013 bombing of two important Salafi mosques in Tripoli, both of which were known for their connection with Sunni insurgents in Syria. The attack was carried out during Friday prayers, and it cost the lives of 48 worshippers, injuring some 800 others. The anti-Assad camp in Tripoli viewed this as a major escalation.

When the Lebanese judiciary accused the cleric Ahmad Gharib, Minkara’s aide in charge of coordination with Syrian intelligence, of having fomented the attacks, violence against the Minkara group and other pro-Syrian factions spiked. A few weeks after the mosque bombings, Minkara’s lieutenant, Saadeddine Ghiyyeh, was assassinated, and so was Hussam al-Mori, the leader of the Mori clan in the Zahriyeh neighborhood. The anti-Assad factions also intensified their attacks on the beleaguered, albeit well-armed, pro-Assad Alawite community in Jabal Mohsen, a Tripoli neighborhood that has always been a flashpoint of sectarian and political conflict.

Since then, attacks against pro-Assad groups in Tripoli have continued, with recurrent attacks on the Alawites of Jabal Mohsen and a spate of bombings and assassinations against the Damascus-linked Sunni factions. Assad’s remaining friends in the Sunni community now feel seriously pressured. The IUM, for example, remains relatively strong today, with an estimated 200 supporters active in the city. But IUM offices are now protected by army tanks, and many members have left Tripoli in fear of attacks by anti-Assad factions.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly who may be responsible for the violence targeting Tripoli’s pro-Assad Islamists. Off the record, militants in the northern port city often refer to a handful of former army officers close to Hariri. These men certainly have the local allies, the funds, and the know-how to conduct such missions, but the attacks are also fueled by a real and growing anger against Assad’s allies within the city’s Sunni community.

Whoever is pulling the strings, the tit-for-tat violence between friends and enemies of the Syrian regime is now so pervasive that it has brought Lebanon’s second city to the verge of chaos. It is a confrontation that belies the standard sectarian divide of Sunni versus Shia, in a sign of how multifaceted and fragmented the Sunni Islamic spectrum really is in Tripoli—and in the wider Levant as well.

Don’t miss Raphaël Lefèvre’s previous articles about the Syria-related unrest in Tripoli:
Lebanon’s Pro-Assad Islamists
Power Struggles Among the Alawites in Lebanon, Part I
Power Struggles Among the Alawites in Lebanon, Part II
How the War in Syria Empowers Lebanese Jihadism