Accusations mount of Hezbollah fighting in Syria
If hard evidence emerges of the Shiite militant group's involvement, it would increase tensions in Lebanon where armed partisans on opposite sides live in close proximity.
MASHARIH AL-QAA, Lebanon
In Pictures Reaching a critical juncture in Syria
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The mosque is the lone Hezbollah bastion amid a flat agricultural landscape populated mainly by Sunni Lebanese and used as a haven by Lebanese and Syrian members of the Free Syrian Army. But parked discreetly – and incongruously – in the shade of a tree beside the mosque is an ambulance waiting to transport wounded Hezbollah fighters returning from fighting against the FSA over the border, says Syrian fighter Hussein, a former irrigation engineer who today heads a small unit of the FSA’s Jusiyah Martyrs’ Brigade, named after the nearby Syrian border village.
Accusations of Hezbollah involvement in Syria have strengthened in recent weeks amid reports of fighters killed in combat being returned to Lebanon for quiet burial. Hezbollah, along with its patron Iran, are key allies of the Assad regime, together forming an “axis of resistance” that spans the region – to confront Israel and Western ambitions for the Middle East.
If hard confirmation arises that Hezbollah is playing a role in Syria it will increase tensions in Lebanon, which is already attempting to distance itself as much as possible from the reverberations of the bloody conflict roiling its larger neighbor. The Lebanese government – which is dominated by allies of Hezbollah – formally follows a policy of disassociation from the Syria crisis, although it has merely averted its eyes as Syrian rebel fighters turn parts of the territory along the border into a de facto haven from the fighting.
In response to intensifying speculation over Hezbollah’s alleged activities in Syria, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the party’s leader, said last week that the Assad regime had not asked him for military assistance.
He acknowledged, however, that there were more than two dozen villages and farms located just inside Syria, north of the border with Lebanon, that are home to around 30,000 Lebanese, many of whom are Shiites and members of Hezbollah. Mr. Nasrallah said that they had been coming under threat from “armed groups” and had chosen to defend themselves.
“Some of them decided to flee the area, but most of them stayed in their towns and started to arm themselves,” he said. “The residents of these towns took the decision to stay and defend themselves against armed groups and did not engage in battle between the regime and the opposition,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech.
Nearly two weeks ago, Hezbollah held a prominent funeral for Ali Nassif, a senior commander who died “while performing his jihadi duties,” a standard phrase used by the group when announcing deaths of fighters in circumstances other than direct combat with Israel, such as training accidents. The Jusiyah Martyrs’ Brigade militants claim that Nassif was killed in the border village of Rableh and was deliberately targeted for assassination.
“We waited for him to emerge from a school which they use as a command post. When we saw a black Grand Cherokee with tinted windows leave the school, we guessed it was him and hit it with an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade],” says Hussein.
He and other members of the Jusiyah Martyrs’ Brigade interviewed over a 24-hour period while resting in Masharih al-Qaa claim that their most formidable foes across the border in Syria are not Syrian Army soldiers, but battle-hardened veteran Hezbollah fighters. They say the Hezbollah men are helping the Assad regime regain control of a cluster of villages and towns in the vicinity of the Syrian town of Qusayr, five miles north of the border.