Maren Milligan in MERIP:
Tripoli is the epicenter of a high-stakes conflict unfolding in Lebanon. In 2012 alone, armed clashes have erupted six times, in mid-February, thrice in May, again in early June and most recently in late July, between Sunnis and ‘Alawis there. The firefights in Lebanon’s second city, a port town of some 500,000 on a head of land jutting from the northern coast, have added to fears stoked by the proximity of the increasingly lethal civil war in Syria. The three days of battles in May left 11 dead; the July skirmishes took two more lives, and have put the population on edge.
The administrative unit of Tripoli consists almost entirely of the eponymous metropolis that links together other regions of Lebanon’s northernmost province: largely Sunni ‘Akkar and Miniyya-Diniyya, largely Greek Orthodox Koura, and largely Maronite Zagharta, Bishara and Batroun. Sunnis are approximately 80 percent of the city’s population, but there are also significant minorities, primarily ‘Alawis, who make up 7.5 percent of the residents, according to the 2009 voter registry. Most of the balance are Christians, either Maronites or Greek Orthodox, the remnants of larger communities that fled by the thousands during the 1975-1991 civil war.
The contention focused in Tripoli is often attributed to “spillover” from Syria, which borders Lebanon’s northern governorate to the north and the east. Thousands of Syrians have taken refuge in the city, particularly over the winter of 2011-2012, during the worst of the fighting in Homs, some 50 miles to the east over the mountains. Media accounts sometimes trace the clashes at the start of the summer to the May 25 massacre of 108 Syrians in Houla, northwest of Homs.  The idea behind such explanations — often filed from Beirut or other distant locales — is that the Houla victims were Sunnis and the perpetrators presumed in both Syria and Lebanon to be ‘Alawis. But the link is weak, and in any case, armed confrontations have been occurring in Tripoli for years. Indeed, the distrust between the people of the two quarters where the fighting has centered dates from the civil war and last erupted in hostilities in 2008 during the lead-up to the 2009 parliamentary elections. Although Tripoli has long been connected to Syria — especially to its sister city, Homs — the Lebanese port is not a mere extension of Syria. It is its own battleground.