TRIPOLI, Lebanon— When Sahar, an interior designer, woke up Sunday morning, she saw that the streets in her hometown, Lebanon's second largest city, had been decorated overnight with dozens of green-and-white Saudi Arabian flags.
While she'd been sleeping, another Tripolitan, Omar, had met up with friends and other locals in the predominantly Sunni city's main square. Their mission for the evening? To send a clear signal that the Sunnis of Tripoli are aligned with Saudi Arabia and not Iran — the primary backer of Shiite armed group Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization and a powerful political and military force in Lebanon. This provocation followed the announcement days earlier by Saudi Arabia and five other Gulf states that Hezbollah was recruiting Gulf youth for terror attacks.
The following morning, Sahar and Omar, who both asked that their last names be omitted because of the sensitive nature of the conversation, met with International Business Times at a cafe in Tripoli. Both are Sunni Muslims who have lived in the city for most of their lives, but neither are religious conservatives: Sahar was wearing a short dress and colorful aviators while Omar smoked cigarette after cigarette.
“[I] woke up to Saudi Arabia flags, this doesn't please me. It’s very provocative — we never see a Saudi putting a Lebanese flag up,” Sahar told IBT. “This is a game between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Tripolitans are playing the game again by hanging flags of Saudi Arabia all over the city.”
Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been ideological and political foes, but they are now waging proxy wars against each other on the region’s battlefields. Tehran is threatening Saudi’s power next door in Syria as Iran and the Syrian regime gain ground against the Saudi-backed opposition. In Yemen, the Gulf states have now accused Hezbollah of supporting the Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebel group fighting the Saudi-led coalition. As Iran and Saudi fight across the region, the two are now trying to capitalize on tension and distrust between Lebanon's Sunni and Shiite communities.
Lebanon’s different religious sects have remained divided but mostly nonviolent in the two and a half decades since the country's 15-year civil war came to an end. But since then the Shiite group Hezbollah — and Iran by extension — has become more powerful in Lebanon, leaving Sunnis feeling increasingly isolated and persecuted.
“Fighting [between Muslims] and Christians is old-fashioned, now it’s Sunni and Shiite and we keep on fighting,” Sahar said. “All the propaganda we hear now is to be scared and that Hezbollah is eating us alive.”
Saudi Arabia has taken several steps over the last two weeks to mobilize the Sunni population against the Shiites. Last week, a Saudi-owned TV in Lebanon aired warnings to Sunni communities, citing threats from Hezbollah. Though Hezbollah denied these claims, Sunnis in Tripoli have little trust for the Shiite group.
“Now it is the best time to fight Hezbollah. They're going to either lose Syria or Lebanon,” Omar said. “We are [supported by] Saudi Arabia. We need to live but when we cannot live, we need to fight.”
Lebanon's Sunni communities are filled with young men eager to get revenge on Hezbollah and defend their areas, but they are not organized, and their arsenal of weapons pales in comparison to that of the Shiite group. Without help from an outside entity, they know they can never take on Hezbollah and win.
If Hezbollah decided to invade the northern Sunni territories, as Saudi Arabia is warning will happen, Tripolitans and other northern Sunni communities “can make their lives difficult with guerrilla attacks, but we don't have enough to defend our area,” Mouin Merhabi, a parliamentary member with the Future Movement, a political party aligned with Saudi Arabia, told IBT.
But Mohammed, a Shiite resident of Qana, a town in southern Lebanon, is doubtful that Hezbollah would attack the northern Sunni areas without provocation. Instead, he believes that Saudi Arabia is trying to get Sunnis to attack Hezbollah so that the Shiite group would have no choice but to retaliate.
“I have many Sunni friends, but Saudi is telling them to fight us. But here it won't be the same thing,” Mohammed said. “Saudi is paying people to go fight Hezbollah, but Hezbollah isn’t doing anything.”
Contrary to what Mohammed believes, and despite the Saudi flags decorating the city, residents of Tripoli claimed that the Sunni communities have not received any funding or weapons from the kingdom.
“Saudi Arabia is not paying a penny, if Saudi Arabia wanted to pay they could get a lot of fighters to fight Hezbollah,” Sheikh Nabil, one of the most prominent Sunni religious leaders in Tripoli, told IBT. “The Sunni side is a bit against Saudi Arabia because they aren't paying. Now the only people who can fight Hezbollah is Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS]. The ones who want to fight went to fight Hezbollah in Syria.”
Fighting in Syria has not simply spilled over into Lebanon but re-ignited dormant sectarian strife between Lebanon’s Shiite and Sunni populations. At the behest of Iran, Hezbollah has fought alongside the Syrian regime since 2012. The Syrian civil war has also brought an uptick in militant activity in Tripoli and other areas of northern Lebanon, including Syrian and Lebanese fighters affiliated with al Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State group.
In the south, Hezbollah’s main area of control, the rise of Sunni militants has created a climate of fear among the Shiite communities and a deeper reliance on the Shiite group for protection. Shiites and several Christian groups view Hezbollah as the strongest and only Lebanese force capable of defending the country from terrorist organizations like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
“Everybody here is worried,” said Ali Haidar, a manager of a restaurant in Nabatiyeh, a city in Lebanon’s south. “We are afraid that the north will become like Raqqa or Mosul [ISIS headquarters in Syria and Iraq.]”
Haidar works in Nabatiyeh but commutes from his home in Byblos in the northern region of Lebanon. To get to work, Haidar must drive through several sensitive Sunni areas, where security forces have cracked down the hardest on militant activity. A few weeks ago, he said, a bullet landed on the roof of his car.
“Every day when I come to work I am afraid. Each night I am afraid to drive through Beirut and Ain al-Hilweh" [a Palestinian refugee camp], Haidar said. “In Lebanon we’re going to stay divided. It's a matter of trust here. They can't trust us and we can't trust them.”
In the north, the same feelings of mistrust prevail. Following a major crackdown on Sunni militants, the Sunni population in the north feels unfairly singled out and persecuted by the state security forces, which the Sunnis have long suspected of working with Hezbollah, creating an atmosphere of fear and an us-versus-them mentality.
Saudi Arabia backed up this claim last week when the kingdom announced it was pulling the $4 billion it had been sending to Lebanon’s armed forces, because “[the Lebanese army was not] in harmony with the brotherly ties linking the two countries,” Saudi’s state news agency SPA reported.
“It was amazing when we heard Saudi Arabia saying this, I was saying this three years ago,” Merhabi said. “Hezbollah is controlling Lebanon. They have a militia that is stronger than our army. The leader of our army takes orders directly from [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah.”
Sheikh Nabil said he is often criticized for being too moderate by his Tripoli counterparts. He believes the solution for the sectarian strife in Lebanon is to convince Hezbollah to disarm, but he knows that isn’t likely to happen, he told IBT. As long Hezbollah remains armed, his militant peers in Tripoli continue to gain supporters from Sunni communities.
“They don't have any other choice. They’ll have to get weapons and fight them and no one will win,” Sheikh Nabil said. "[The alternative] is to live like we are living now, waiting for nothing.”