12/20/2013 05:22 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

Lebanon: Tripoli's Residents Trapped in Sectarian Violence

(Beirut) – Sectarian tensions between the Alawite Jabal Mohsen neighborhood and surrounding Sunni neighborhoods have led to increasing targeted attacks against Alawites in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. The Lebanese authorities’ response has remained weak even as the conflict in Syria has seriously aggravated tensions there.

Lebanese authorities should take all feasible steps to protect Tripoli residents by confiscating weapons that have been used to kill residents such as mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and automatic weapons, arresting and prosecuting gunmen, and maintaining an active security presence in all communities.

“With battles going on in Tripoli and with people being targeted, beaten, knifed, and killed, the Lebanese government can’t afford to sit on its hands,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It needs to start arresting and prosecuting the people behind the violence in Tripoli and confiscate their weapons.”

The government’s new security plan for Tripoli should specifically include measures to protect Alawite residents and their property. It should include a plan to stop attacks that are underway, investigate incidents, and arrest and prosecute those responsible, while respecting the rights of all, including anyone detained.

The conflict in neighboring Syria has severely aggravated existing sectarian tensions in Tripoli, where intermittent violence has persisted between the hilltop Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen and the Sunni neighborhoods that completely surround it, including Bab al-Tabbaneh, since May 2008. Hundreds of both Sunni and Alawite residents have been the main victims, but Jabal Mohsen residents are especially vulnerable.

Sunni gunmen and arsonists have attacked and burned numerous shops belonging to Jabal Mohsen residents in other Tripoli districts. Sunni militants have also beaten Alawites on the streets of Tripoli outside of Jabal Mohsen. Some gunmen from the Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh have forced Alawite shop owners to pay protection money.

The government’s security response has been weak, and official security operations have failed to stop the fighting or demilitarize affected neighborhoods, Human Rights Watch said. Law enforcement and security forces have made no sustained effort to disarm, arrest, and prosecute the gunmen, despite some arrests and weapons confiscated in 2013. Tripoli residents from both Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh told Human Rights Watch that a program administered through the High Relief Committee (HRC) to compensate for damaged or destroyed property has been plagued by delays, exclusions, and inadequate payments.

Security forces in Tripoli have in particular failed to provide Alawites with adequate protection and to arrest, disarm, and punish those responsible for attacks even though the identities of many of the attackers are known. For example, in April a stabbing victim told Human Rights Watch that Lebanese army troops stationed nearby did not attempt to stop his attackers.

Based on publicly available information, in four of the five reported attacks on Alawites in November and December, no arrests were made. In six of seven cases Human Rights Watch documented in which Alawite shops were attacked, shop owners, their neighbors, or employees said that security forces did not attempt to stop the attacks. Witnesses said that security forces investigated only two of the attacks afterward.

In November, the Lebanese government said it was putting a security plan into operation for the city, which has an estimated population of 500,000. On December 2, the caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, placed Tripoli under the control of the army for six months.

The government’s actions are a major change in its response to the numerous rounds of violence in Tripoli, which have had a devastating impact on local residents. Human Rights Watch previously documented clashes pitting gunmen from Jabal Mohsen against gunmen from Bab al-Tabbaneh and other surrounding Sunni neighborhoods.

The clashes have killed at least 141 people since June 2008 and injured hundreds of others and in some cases have hampered access to medical assistance. They have also badly damaged property and severely affected residents’ livelihoods, freedom of movement, and access to education.

While the clashes have affected both Sunnis and Alawites in these neighborhoods, Tripoli’s small Alawite community of tens of thousands people face additional dangers as a result of the increasing violence directed against them.

Lebanese authorities, with the support of international donors, should confiscate weapons such as mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and automatic weapons, arrest and prosecute gunmen, and maintain an active security presence in all threatened communities in a way that takes into account local concerns and fears. These measures should include investigations into those responsible for criminal attacks and holding them to account in civilian courts.

One way to address the underlying grievances would be to establish a committee with representatives from both sides as well as national leaders, Human Rights Watch said. The committee should investigate the grievances and the needs of impoverished and long neglected communities, both Alawite and Sunni.

The Lebanese government should also improve the HRC compensation program to eliminate delays, exclusions, and inadequate payments.

“There is no quick fix to the rampant violence in Tripoli or to resolving decades-long grievances, but addressing the problem of impunity of gunmen is absolutely key,” Stork said. “Lebanese authorities should expand security in the short-term while developing reconciliation processes to achieve lasting solutions to the violence in Tripoli.”

Details of attacks on Alawites in Tripoli, Lebanon >>