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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.

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“The regime’s soldiers are cowards against us. But we fear the Hezbollah men,” says Hussein.

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He added that he had encountered some Hezbollah fighters on the road beside the border in Jusiyah and had approached them with bottles of water, pretending to be a supportive civilian.

“None of them were under 35 years old. They were very professional and tough fighters. You can tell they are superior fighters from the way they move in battle and how they fight,” he says.

Self-defense

Accusations of Hezbollah involvement in Syria have been aired by opponents of the Assad regime since protests erupted in March last year. Many of the early accounts were less than convincing. Similarly, YouTube videos purporting to show Hezbollah fighters in Syria were inconclusive and often posted by people politically opposed to the party.

But in recent months there have been persistent reports of Hezbollah assisting the Assad regime with combat advice and passing on the group’s formidable guerrilla skills to the pro-regime Shabiha militia, with the goal of turning them into an effective paramilitary force.

Hezbollah views the conflict in Syria as a confrontation with strategic consequences for the region. The collapse of the Assad regime and its replacement with a Sunni-dominated regime moderate in its foreign policy and more closely aligned with Turkey and Saudi Arabia would tear out the geostrategic heart of the axis of resistance.

“Hezbollah has no choice but to be there,” says a prominent member of a Shiite clan in the Bekaa Valley who is close to Hezbollah. “The opposition has fighters from Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, helping them, so why shouldn’t the Assad regime receive the help of Hezbollah?”

Furthermore, Hezbollah is not the only Lebanese entity accused of partisan involvement in Syria. Several hundred Lebanese Sunnis have volunteered for the FSA, joining other Arab nationals drawn to the conflict, according to Lebanese supporters of the Syrian opposition. Others provide shelter for the FSA in north Lebanon, allowing militants to rest, regroup, and plan. There have been several media reports – the latest in yesterday's edition of the British newspaper The Guardian – that Okab Saqr, a Lebanese parliamentarian allied to former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, is in Turkey organizing the transfer of Saudi-funded arms to the Syrian opposition. A Washington-based analyst who recently visited the Turkish border area with Syria said that Mr. Saqr’s name “is all over the place.”

Nowhere is the divergence between Hezbollah support for the Assad regime and Lebanese Sunni backing for the Syrian opposition more starkly illustrated than in the northern Bekaa Valley. The western flank of the valley is a Hezbollah stronghold and allows access for fighters to the Shiite-populated villages just over the border in Syria.

The eastern flank, including Masharih al-Qaa, contains a sizable Sunni population – some of whom are FSA volunteers and almost all of whom are sympathetic to the Syrian opposition. That has created an unusual situation: Just north of the border, Hezbollah fighters and Syrian troops battle Lebanese and Syrian FSA militants, while just south of the frontier, the two foes eye each other warily, but peacefully, from their respective corners of the northern Bekaa.

Even the lone Hezbollah mosque, despite being surrounded by hostile FSA elements, has been left untouched. Similarly, Hezbollah has made no effort to engage the FSA in Masharih al-Qaa.

“If Hezbollah decided to come after us here, it would start a civil war,” says Ismael, a Lebanese resident of Masharih al-Qaa who serves with the Jusiyah Martyrs’ Brigade. “And nobody wants that.”

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