With a Terrible Blast, The Syrian Civil War Came to Lebanon

Bloody bombings pushed militia fighters to the brink

With a Terrible Blast, The Syrian Civil War Came to Lebanon With a Terrible Blast, The Syrian Civil War Came to Lebanon

Uncategorized September 29, 2013 0

Ahmad Abous. Thomas Hammond photo With a Terrible Blast, The Syrian Civil War Came to Lebanon Bloody bombings pushed militia fighters to the brink... With a Terrible Blast, The Syrian Civil War Came to Lebanon
Ahmad Abous. Thomas Hammond photo

With a Terrible Blast, The Syrian Civil War Came to Lebanon

Bloody bombings pushed militia fighters to the brink

It was Ahmad Abous’ turn to watch the children. A 53-year-old electrician and former car salesman living in Tripoli, an impoverished city in northern Lebanon, Abous frequently shuttled his kids, grandkids and their friends around town in his van.

His was a habitual act of kindness that would have tragic and unintended consequences—and which would become tangled up in the complex, bloody politics of the Middle East roiled by the nearly three-year-old Syrian civil war. Abous and the kids were in the line of fire when, it appears, supporters of the embattled Syrian regime almost dragged Lebanon more directly into the war.

Looking after his son and two granddaughters on Aug. 23, the electrician was running a little behind. It was Friday, and on Fridays he usually prayed along with hundreds of other neighborhood Sunnis at the Al Taqwa mosque. He bathed the girls Amina and Bahaleldin—six and eight, respectively—patted them dry and bundled them and his 13-year-old son Hussein into the van and drove quickly to the mosque.

He was lucky to find a parking space on the curb right outside the large squarish church with its towering spire. He ran inside to pray; the preacher, Sheikh Salem Al Rafei, was in the middle of a forceful sermon.

A fiery conservative powerfully opposed to the meddling of Alawite-led Syria in Lebanese affairs, Al Rafei is popular in Tripoli’s Sunni-dominated Bab Al Tabaneh neighborhood, where Abous lives in a third-story apartment near an auto repair shop. Bab Al Tabaneh is run by AK-47-armed militiamen who regularly swap gunfire with the neighboring Jabal Mohsen, Tripoli’s Alawite stronghold.

If there’s a microcosm of the Syria war inside Lebanon, it’s on Syria Street, the rough asphalt strip separating Bab Al Tabaneh and Jabal Mohsen.

Al Rafei was cut off mid-sentence by a cataclysm of noise, dust and shrapnel. It was the blast of a bomb concealed in a vehicle parked near Abous’ van. The explosion twisted the metal girders of the open-air prayer area, lit parked cars on fire and dug a crater at least six feet deep in the concrete. A second blast a few minutes later targeted another, nearby mosque.

Forty-seven people died. Hundreds were injured. Abous, only lightly hurt, ran to the curb to find his van engulfed in flames. When rescuers were finally able to wrench open the van, they found the boy Hussein and little Amina and Bahaleldin burned to cinder, clutching each other in a final, horrific embrace.

Lebanese authorities quickly arrested five men in connection with the bombing. Three of the suspects—Hashem Menkara, Ahmad Al Ghareeb and Mustafa Houri—allegedly have ties to the Islamic Unification Movement, which itself is connected to the Syrian government and Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Shi’ite militia that has deployed thousands of fighters to fight on Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad’s behalf.

Authorities said the other two suspects were Mohammed Ali, a Syrian officer, and Khodr Al Aryan, a Syrian civilian.

To Tripoli’s Sunnis, it appeared the Syrian government had launched an attack on them. And in the minutes following the blasts, it seemed the Sunnis might return the violence in equal measure—an act of vengeance that could have ignited wider fighting across Lebanon.

Tinder box

Bab Al Tabaneh and Jabal Mohsen have a long, nasty history of conflict. During the Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990, the Alawites of Jabal Mohsen fought alongside the occupying Syrian army against Sunni rebels including men from Bab Al Tabaneh. Their battles between 1984 and 1986 claimed hundreds of lives.

The Syrian occupation ended in 2005, seemingly stranding Lebanon’s 120,000 Alawites, including the 60,000 in Tripoli. The Alawites rearmed following Syria’s departure and, in Lebanon’s spasm of violence in 2008, sided with Hezbollah and again battled Bab Al Tabaneh’s fighters, resulting in dozens of deaths. Fighting also flared in 2011, 2012 and this year.

But the mosque bombings were by far the worst attacks since the 1980s. The blasts may have been retaliation for an explosion in a Hezbollah-controlled neighborhood of Beirut on Aug. 15 that killed 30 people—and has been blamed on Sunni militants from Syria. In any event the Tripoli attacks threatened to escalate into wider warfare. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the terror group based in Algeria, blamed Hezbollah for the blasts. “That vile party … should know that it will meet retribution soon,” the group announced.

AQIM has no presence in Lebanon but its sentiments surely reflect those of hardline Sunnis in Tripoli. In Bab Al Tabaneh in the hours following the explosions, a few angry Sunni gunmen peppered Jabal Mohsen with gunfire. “These were men who had lost brothers in the bombings,” says Ghazi Haroux, a 49-year-old militia commander in Bab Al Tabaneh.

But an all-out assault on Jabal Mohsen—and a massive escalation of sectarian tensions just beyond Syria’s border—never happened. Sitting beside a gun rack heaped with AK-47s and bolt-action rifles in his cramped office on a Bab Al Tabaneh side street, Haroux, a 30-year veteran of the fighting against Syria and its allies, describes frantic phone calls from government leaders to Sunni sheiks, pleading with them to tell the militiamen to stand down.

Ahmad Abous watches a video of the mosque blast. Thomas Hammond photo

The sheiks honored the request, and militia commanders like Haroux followed their orders. The government made its arrests the following day. And in the weeks since Tripoli has been quiet. A surge in army and paramilitary patrols is no doubt a factor; the government troops even managed to disable a car bomb they discovered on Sept. 20. But restraint on the part of Bab Al Tabaneh’s leaders and fighters is the main reason.

Restraint, or an unusually clear sense of who is truly most likely to blame for blowing up the mosques and burning Abous’ kids. “It’s the Syrians who are attacking the Sunnis,” Haroux says. As in, the Syrian regime, not the Lebanese of Syrian origin who have long lived in Jabal Mohsen. Whatever the historical differences between the two neighborhoods, retaliating against the real mosque attackers means hitting back directly at Al Assad.

And that’s exactly what Bab Al Tabaneh is doing. Many of its young men have slipped across the border to fight—and some have died there. Residents have sent blankets and medical supplies to the Free Syrian Army. And Tripoli’s mosques raise money for the rebels. Following prayer one Friday in early September, two men stood outside the patched-up but still-scorched Al Taqwa mosque calling out for donations, a blanket stretched between them as a makeshift sack.

Hundreds of men filed past, dropping paper bills into the sack. Here 10,000 pounds, or seven dollars. There 1,000 pounds: 75 cents. Each donation an indirect act of vengeance.

Of course, revenge won’t bring back Hussein, Amina and Bahaleldin. Slouched on a sofa in his modest apartment before a makeshift shrine—simple photo portraits of the dead children arranged on a footrest—Abous watches a video of the bomb blast on a cell phone … and gently weeps.