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In Lebanon's Syrian stronghold, religious rifts run deep

Relatives mourn the death of Lebanese youth Maher Amad in Arida in northern Lebanon on Jan. 21. Maher was killed in a Syrian naval patrol's raid on a Tripoli-based fishing boat that was suspected of smuggling weapons to the rebels from Lebanese opposition leader Saad Hariri.

Omar Ibarahim/Reuters

Damascus may have withdrawn its troops from Lebanon in 2005, but it left behind a real-life slice of Syria in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli and its surrounding districts. As in Syria, people here are divided by faith and united in hate.

Near the centre of this city (Lebanon's second largest) are tens of thousands of Alawites, members of the same Islamic sect to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his hierarchy belong. Just as has historically been the case in Syria, the Alawites in Tripoli took up residence here on a hilltop – in this case a hill named Jabal Mohsen – from which they can defend themselves, if necessary, from the more numerous and generally more affluent Sunni Muslims who live below them.

Over the years there have been numerous clashes between the two sides, particularly during the popular uprising in Syria over the past 10 months. The deadliest exchange took place last June, when seven people were killed and more than 60 wounded, as Sunni Muslims staged a protest against the Assad regime.

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Buildings on both sides remain riddled with bullet holes and the Lebanese army, with several armoured personnel carriers, is stationed all along Syria Street – a kind of "Green Line" that separates the two groups.

More than any other city in Lebanon, Tripoli displays a lot of iconic pictures of prominent political leaders on billboards and murals.

Crossing Syria Street and heading onto Jabal Mohsen, you quickly come upon numerous images of Bashar al-Assad, his late father, Hafez al-Assad, and Rifaat Eid, the local Alawi political chieftain.

The people here see themselves as another column in the Assad army.

Below a billboard that shows both Assads along with Mr. Eid, 59-year-old Sayeed Ibrahim stands outside his small grocery store. With his grey felt cap pulled low over his dark brown eyes, Mr. Ibrahim explains to a visitor that there is an international plot against Bashar al-Assad.

"The U.S. and some of the Arab countries have a plan for the whole region," Mr. Ibrahim says. "First, it's Iraq and Palestine, then Lebanon and Syria, and finally Iran," he explains. "They want to control them all."

"We will not let it succeed," he says emphatically. "There will be a sea of blood, before this ever happens."

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Salman Eid, 33, a relative of the local Alawi leader, joins the conversation and wants to impress upon the visitor the fact that Mr. al-Assad is much less bloody than was his father Hafez, who killed more than 10,000 people in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982, in his determined bid to rid the country of a rebellious Muslim Brotherhood headquartered there.

"Bashar has a policy of openness," Mr. Eid says, adding that the current President is facing a much more serious armed uprising than his father faced. "Some countries are sending arms and money to these terrorists who want to destroy Syria," he explains. "There are weapons being shipped from this very city."

Indeed, just this past weekend, Syrian naval vessels seized a Tripoli-based fishing boat and its four-man crew as it approached Syrian waters. The men, they believed, were smuggling weapons to the rebels from Lebanese opposition leader Saad Hariri. In the course of taking over the boat, one of the crew, a 16-year-old boy, was shot and died and two other men were wounded. The body, the men and the vessel were later returned. No weapons were found.

The Alawite Mufti, Sheik Assad Assi, presides over this ersatz Syrian community.

"We are not Syrians," he wants a visitor to understand. "We are Lebanese. Our relationship to Syria is as neighbours, and fellow Arabs."

The formalities out of the way, Sheik Assi rolls up his robe's grey sleeves. An imposing figure with a white turban wrapped around a red fez, the mufti fingers amber prayer beads as he makes it clear that "several Arab countries, led by Qatar, are promoting the terrorists in Syria."

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Why would they be doing this? I ask.

"Because they all are working for Israeli interests," he answers. "The U.S.-Israeli agenda is to target Iran," he says. "We must not let the Zionists take power."

Down the hill and across Syria Street, equally passionate Sunni Muslims have a very different view of things.

"The big states are all at home and people here are dying," says Ahmed, an auto mechanic, referring to the killing of activists inside Syria, and the refusal of the international community to come to the rescue as it did in Libya. "The opposition is in a bad way right now but, sooner or later, Bashar will be forced to go."

Ahmed and others sip coffee from a passing vendor with a push cart. Across the street stand two abandoned buildings, or what's left of them. They were shelled by Syrian forces in fighting in 1986. The buildings stand as a reminder of how much this community, called al-Tabani, hates the Syrians.

"Not one family in this community has been unaffected by the Syrians," says Mohamed Fuad, an elderly shopkeeper.

"My brother was killed by them," one man shouts. "They jailed my father for seven years," says another.

A taxi driver in a black leather jacket finishes his coffee and says in a world-weary way "all the Arab regimes should be overthrown, especially the ones in the Gulf. They're all Zionists," he explains, an odd bit of congruence with the hated Alawites up the hill.

There are few Christians in the city of Tripoli, though they dominate much of the surrounding rural area. In Amioun, 20 minutes southeast of the city, stands the church of St. Jeanne, built on a rock shelf above several old hermit caves – testimony to the longevity of Christianity in these parts, and to the threats against it.

Outside the church is a sign for the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, with its swastika-like emblem. A former leader of the far-right party hails from this town, and many of its citizens embrace the pro-Syrian ideology.

"We are with Bashar 100 per cent," says a man who lives near the church but will only give his age, 67, not his name. "It's America that wants him out," he says of the threat to the Syrian leader.

Why? "Because of Israel," he says, seemingly incredulous that anyone would have to ask. "Everything that happens in this region is because of Israel.

"Does Bashar have lots of oil?" he asks rhetorically. "No. So why else is everyone paying so much attention to him now?

"Before all this recent trouble, Christians and Muslims got along well in Syria. Now we [Christians]are afraid."

Mirielle, who runs the shoe shop in town, agrees.

"Three quarters of the people in Syria [the Sunnis]hate Christians," she says, "but not the Alawites. They have high regard for Mary [the Blessed Virgin] Many of them wear a medallion of Mary," she notes, touching her own.

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