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