Lebanon's Alawites Watch and Wait as Assad Struggles for Power
In the impoverished Jabal Mohsen area of the port city of Tripoli in north Lebanon, a small Alawite community is watching anxiously as Syrian President Bashar Assad fights to stay in power.
"Syria is our neighbor, our brother, our mother," Abdul Latif Saleh, mayor of Jabal Mohsen, told Agence France Presse.
"We will never forget the sacrifices the Syrian army made in Lebanon and we are behind the Syrian regime because they alone confronted the United States and Israel," added Saleh, who also serves as spokesman for the local Alawite Arab Democratic Party.
"Without them, Lebanon would never have found peace."
Saleh's view is echoed throughout Jabal Mohsen, home to the majority of the country's estimated 100,000 to 120,000 Alawite Muslims, from Lebanon's overall population of an estimated four million.
The community follows the same offshoot of Shiite Islam as the Assad dynasty and for the most part has remained loyal to the embattled regime in Damascus.
Portraits of Bashar Assad and his late father Hafez dot the rundown streets of this enclave, perched on a hilltop and surrounded by Sunni Muslim neighborhoods whose residents back anti-regime protesters in Syria.
Tripoli has regularly seen deadly clashes between residents of Jabal Mohsen and those of the nearby Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh.
The area was the site of an armed street battle in June sparked by an anti-Assad rally in a Sunni neighborhood, leaving seven people dead.
Today, as protests in Syria enter their eighth month, the Alawites of Jabal Mohsen continue to voice their loyalty to the Alawite-controlled Syrian regime.
"We will stand by President Bashar Assad to the end and as everyone can see he is introducing reforms," said Mahmoud Zeitoun, seated in his tiny grocery store in Jabal Mohsen.
Minority Alawites gained political clout when Syrian troops entered Lebanon shortly after the outbreak of its 1975 civil war.
Damascus dominated Lebanon militarily and politically for 29 years, before withdrawing in the wake of the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafik Hariri.
Lebanon's Alawites were granted two seats in the 128-strong parliament in 1992 but they still have no representative in cabinet -- which like parliament is equally divided between Christians and Muslims.
Because of their historic ties with the Syrian regime, this tiny community will likely feel the repercussions of any change in Damascus.
"The events in Syria will naturally affect Lebanon's Alawites as it will redefine the balance of power," said Marwan Rowayheb, political science professor at the Lebanese American University.
"As the situation in Syria gets more complicated, I think we could well see Lebanon's Alawites begin to distinguish or even distance themselves from the Assad regime and emphasize that they are first and foremost Lebanese."
But in Jabal Mohsen, many say they will back the embattled Assad to the end.
"What is really going on in Syria is not at all what you see on television," said Rabih Mohammed, who has draped a Syrian flag across the storefront of his cafe.
"There is a conspiracy against President Assad," Mohammed told AFP. "The Muslim Brotherhood and saboteurs are fighting to bring down Syria."
The Sunni Muslim Brotherhood has been banned in Syria by the ruling Baath Party for decades.
The group was all but wiped out in 1982 when Hafez Assad ordered a military crackdown that killed thousands in the town of Hama to quell a rebellion by the group.
Assad's troops also entered Tripoli shortly afterwards, where they clashed with local Sunni parties.
For the people of Tripoli, the memory lingers as they hold their breath -- and hope for the best.
"We have a long history of sectarianism sparking anger so it's only natural that fears are running pretty high right now, but we all refuse to engage in more violence," said Ali Fedda, who runs a clothing store in Jabal Mohsen.
"Unfortunately for us, stability in Jabal Mohsen is like a stock market that rises and plunges depending on political dynamics."