A deal to end the fighting in northern Lebanon?

A deal to end the fighting in northern Lebanon?
The Lebanese army has successfully pressured the armed groups it was fighting in Tripoli to agree to a ceasefire.
4 min read
28 October, 2014
Lebanese soliders patrol Bab al-Tebbaneh neighbourhood in Tripoli (Anadolu)
The battles that have raged in Tripoli and other areas of north Lebanon are coming to an end. The bloodshed and destruction Tripoli has grown accustomed to recently appears to be easing after what might have been a back-door deal between the warring parties. 

The Lebanese army command has denied making a deal with the armed groups it has been fighting, and statements by the army’s Orientation Directorate indicate the pursuit of certain individuals is continuing. But the abrupt end to the clashes is an indication that a deal was likely made to end the violence. The clashes - which started on Friday night in Tripoli's old market area before moving to Bab al-Tabbaneh, then spreading north to several towns in the al-Minya district - resulted in the death of at least 18 civilians, 11 soldiers, an unknown number of members of armed groups, and dozens more injured. But the sudden-ness with which the violence ended raises questions.

Sources that participated in a number of meetings between politicians and security officials in Lebanon have quietly confirmed the existence of a deal. The agreement reportedly included the withdrawal of gunmen from the area of Bab al-Tabbaneh, the site of fierce fighting; the army’s taking control of the armed groups’ headquarters; the end of attacks on army checkpoints in Tripoli; and most importantly, the al-Nusra Front postponing the execution of Ali al-Bazzal, a Lebanese soldier abducted in the area between Arsal and Qalamoun, on the Lebanese-Syrian borders.

Officials from the Future movement and a group of clerics from the Association of Muslim Scholars reportedly negotiated the settlement and supervised its implementation, exactly as they have done in ending similar clashes in Tripoli since 2005.

This indicates the army command may not have been given political support for a military solution to this crisis. According to sources in the clerical establishment involved in negotiating the agreement, there were several reasons politicians did not want to prolong fighting in the city, "the most important being the difficulty of fighting in densely populated areas, and the impact of these operations on Sunni areas, and the safety of the soldiers abducted in Arsal".

Security gains

Lebanese army units occupied the centre of Bab al-Tabbaneh for the first time in 2005. That confrontation and subsequent face-offs between the army and armed groups have demonstrated both the size of armed militia in Lebanon, and their lack of popular support. This was also indicated by the exodus of what has been estimated to be nearly 80 percent of the population of Bab al-Tabbaneh - a strong sign they did not want armed groups to "protect" them. They want peace and security to be provided by the Lebanese state.

The army's strength in the recent clashes was demonstrated by its cohesion. There were no reported cases of desertion or defection during the battle. The fact that no Sunni soldiers deserted to fight alongside the gunmen has been read by many here as confirmation that the Sunni community does not "foster terrorism" - an accusation which had been levelled in Lebanon's fractious sectarian society.

A display of military force

The army used helicopters to target armed groups in Tripoli and the region around al-Minya, as well as gunboats off the northern coast. It wanted to show that it took the battle seriously, showing off its hardware and using it to counter a guerrilla force in al-Minya. The aim of this comprehensive campaign appears to be to convince the international community it remains important to support and supply the Lebanese army with modern weapons, and rally politicians and civilians behind the army.

However, the army’s operations indicate its intelligence remains poor. This was obvious after Sheikh Khaled Hablas’ group managed to kill at least five soldiers in an ambush and subsequent clashes, and on the ground in Bab al-Tabbaneh. Security failures have also resulted in the abduction of Lebanese soldiers on public transport - and even from their homes.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic website