Tripoli, Lebanon – Coupled alongside immense posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian government flags, the faces of young men who died during violent clashes line the bullet-pocked walls of the Jabal Mohsen neighbourhood in this coastal city.
For years, Tripoli has endured periodic bloodshed between Jabal Mohsen’s Alawite residents and their neighbours downhill in the predominantly Sunni area of Bab al-Tabbaneh in Tripoli.
Young men from both neighbourhoods have journeyed to Syria to take up arms. Yet, like in Tripoli, they find themselves on opposite sides of Syria’s battlefield, with fighters from Jabal Mohsen joining the Syrian army or militias loyal to the Syrian government, which is controlled by Assad’s Alawite sect.
Sitting in a local cafe, a dozen men argued about the ongoing conflict in Syria over card games, coffee and cigarettes. Khodar, a 24-year-old who didn’t provide his last name due to safety concerns, says he returned from Syria to Lebanon in June.
“I fought in the [Syrian] army because the extremists [in al-Nusra Front and ISIL] have no mercy,” Khodar, who served a two-and-a-half-year stint in an infantry unit of the Syrian army, told Al Jazeera. “I was in Raqqa, Deraa, [and] Palmyra.”
“The [extremists] want to destroy Syria,” Khodar said. “There are a lot of us from Jabal Mohsen in Syria today.”
Like many local residents, Khodar carries dual Lebanese-Syrian citizenship. Mario Abou Zeid, a research analyst at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, explained that “a large number of Alawites serve in the Syrian military” or fight with pro-Assad militias, but “the Syrian regime has kept the exact number from the public”.
Many local Alawites were given Syrian citizenship during Syria’s decades-long occupation of large swaths of Lebanon. Thousands of Syrian Alawites were also relocated to Jabal Mohsen by the Syrian government, which, through corrupt measures, was able to obtain Lebanese citizenship for them, as well.
“Syria had a lot of power in the Lebanese government and made sure Syrian Alawites in Jabal Mohsen were given Lebanese citizenship for voting purposes and for bulking up one of its strongholds in Lebanon,” Abou Zeid told Al Jazeera.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Jabal Mohsen residents said more and more young men have gone to Syria. Asked whether it was aware of Lebanese fighters in the Syrian army, a Lebanese military source confirmed knowledge of the trend but declined to comment further.
According to Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East researcher and associate fellow at the Chatham House, the Syrian government “tried to clone its system in Lebanon between 1990 and 2005”, when it withdrew its military from the country under growing pressure from protesters and critics.
“It was an attempt to ‘Baathify’ part of Lebanon,” he added, referring to Assad’s ruling party.
Foreign fighters are nothing new on Syria’s battlefield. Hezbollah, the Lebanese political group and militia that supports the Assad government, has been fighting alongside the regime since the outset of the crisis. On the other side of the spectrum, fighters from across the globe have joined militant groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Long before a largely unarmed uprising in Syria began in March 2011 – and quickly grew into a full-on civil war that has claimed more than 240,000 lives and displaced more than half of the population – fighting between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh was frequent. But with the Syrian catastrophe showing no sign of letting up, tensions have soared in Tripoli.
Muhammad, a 30-year-old resident with joint Lebanese-Syrian citizenship, was first summoned for military service in Damascus during the summer of 2013. After six months, he was discharged for health reasons related to his asthma. He returned to Lebanon in December of that year.
Born and raised in Jabal Mohsen, his 27-year-old brother Ahmad is currently serving in the Syrian army and is based in Deraa, a city in southern Syria.
“He hasn’t been able to visit since he started his service two years ago,” Muhammad told Al Jazeera, explaining that Syrian soldiers are banned from leaving the country during their service. “My mom goes to the border to meet him, and that’s the only way she can see him.”
“We are proud of him. We’re proud of everyone who fights to protect Alawites in Syria,” he explained, adding that many of his friends and relatives have volunteered in pro-Assad militias that fight alongside Syrian government forces. “Protecting them in Syria is the same to us as protecting Jabal Mohsen.”
Ali al-Aasi, 24, chain-smoked cigarettes as he flipped through pictures on his phone that he took in Syria while serving in a tank unit between 2013 and early 2015. He held up the screen to show a shot of him in a Syrian military uniform. He moved to the next image, in which he was manning a Syrian tank.
Explaining that he enlisted in the Syrian army after his father was killed in a drive-by shooting by Salafist gunmen last year in Tripoli, he said: “I watched him die. I don’t care any more if I die. My father shouldn’t have died. He was a good man and didn’t have any involvement in politics or these conflicts, but I’m a fighter.”
When clashes break out in Tripoli, Aasi also fights with local militias. Scrolling to an image of a machete he bought “for taking revenge” after his father was killed, he said: “We protect Alawites wherever they are. It’s about our honour and our land.”
Khaldoun Sherif, a researcher who specialises in political movements in Tripoli, explained that regional conflicts, particularly the ongoing conflict in Syria, have led to a sharp rise of already existing sectarian tensions in Lebanon.
“Every group or sect has allegiances to religious or ethnic groups in other countries,” he told Al Jazeera. “But under the surface, sectarian is always about political differences.”
Jabal Mohsen’s residents are no exception, he said.
“There are strong political, cultural and religious relations between Lebanese Alawites and their brethren in Syria, so it’s natural that they would support Bashar al-Assad’s regime.”
But fighting next door presents the risk of reigniting fighting at home.
“It’s neither easy nor safe for them to come back to Tripoli and have people from pro-Syrian opposition groups know they fought with Bashar,” Sherif said. “It could be very dangerous for their community or their families.”
Meanwhile, the Syrian army is enduring a shortage of troops as many soldiers or young men of military age flee the country to avoid service.
“A shortage of manpower exists,” Assad admitted during a speech in Damascus in late July.
Declining to comment on Lebanese fighters who back Assad forces next door, Ali Foda, spokesman for the Assad-funded Arab Democratic Party, said only that “the Syrian regime is in the best place it’s been in years. It is making gains in many parts of the country”.
Researcher Nadim Shehadi argues that Jabal Mohsen’s attachment to Assad will not end unless the Syrian government falls.
“It’s about fear,” he said. “They feel politically isolated and [feel] that they have no one else. As long as the Syrian regime is still there, they will not sever from it.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_