One recent cool and sunny afternoon in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, Sheikh Bilal Baroudi, a Sunni Salafist cleric, showed me the charred remains of the Salam mosque. He was preaching there on Aug. 24 when a bomb detonated, killing dozens of worshippers. Only a few walls remained.
While a construction crew worked tirelessly that afternoon to rebuild the gutted building, Baroudi blamed the attack on a local group of Alawites who back the Alawite president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. He said his mosque — as well as the Taqwa Salafist mosque in Tripoli, which was bombed that same August day — had been targeted because members of both congregations support the insurgency in Syria.
The Alawites are a minority sect with ties to the form of Shiism prevalent in Iran. They comprise a small portion of Lebanon’s population of approximately 4.4 million people. The percentages of Shiites and Sunnis are not known and are a matter of speculation because the last census conducted in Lebanon was in 1932.
The small Alawite community of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-most important city, has long been at odds with the local Sunnis. And soon after the Syrian uprising began, clashes broke out in the mountainous areas to the north of the city, between the Alawite-dominated neighborhood Jabal Mohsen and the Sunni-dominated Bab al-Tabbaneh.
“The Syrian regime wants to transport the conflict to us here,” Baroudi told me that day. For him, as well as many other Sunnis I have met in this part of Lebanon, the twin bombings of the Tripoli mosques last summer were intended to heighten sectarian tensions. Baroudi told me Assad’s regime was trying to foment violence by convincing local Shiite groups that the Sunnis were out to get them — and then supplying them with explosives.
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This op-ed first appeared in Foreign Policy on Nov. 22, 2013
Photo credit: Matchbox Media Collective via flickr