Insight and foresight from the global frontlines

Fighting for Assad, Hezbollah buries its own

Hezbollah has incurred its greatest casualties ever while fighting for the Assad regime in Syria. Emotional funerals for fallen 'martyrs' are a way to keep up morale.

SANA/Courtesy via /Reuters
A tank belonging to the forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen at Al-Sahl town, about 2km (1 mile) to Yabroud's north, after the soldiers took control of it from the rebel fighters, March 3, 2014.

The coffin, draped in the bright yellow flag of Hezbollah, was surrounded by a noisy crowd of mourners. They had come to help bury Mohammed Jaber Jaber, the latest fighter from the Lebanese Shiite militant group killed in the Syrian war.

Standing on stage, beneath a large poster showing the faces of other fallen fighters, a teenage boy led the prayer chants, guiding the throng with a confident and steady voice. The men slapped their chests with their right hands in time to the chanting, a traditional Shiite gesture of mourning.

This scene is replayed on a near-daily basis in Shiite-populated areas of Lebanon, as relatives, friends, and Hezbollah supporters converge to pay their respects to the slain fighters who are lauded as “martyrs." Hezbollah says the sacrifices are necessary to prevent Syria falling to Sunni jihadist forces. 

“This is a danger that threatens all Lebanese,” said Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, at a speech last month. “If they [the jihadists] have the opportunity to control the border areas, their goal will be to transform Lebanon into a part of their Islamic state.”

More practically, Syria is a key component in a regional alliance that includes Hezbollah and its patron, Iran. If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime were to collapse, Iran’s reach into the Arab world would be diminished and Hezbollah would become more isolated and vulnerable to its enemies, including Al Qaeda and Israel.

Still, Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria’s civil war has led to the group's most prolonged and intense accrual of casualties since its formation three decades ago. 

Mr. Jaber, a 21-year-old from Ghobayri in southern Beirut, was killed last week near the town of Yabroud in Syria's Qalamoun region. Hezbollah is spearheading an offensive against Syrian rebels to seize the strategic mountainous territory north of Damascus and adjacent to the Lebanese border.

Hezbollah is gradually tightening its grip around Yabroud while avoiding a full frontal assault that could incur significant casualties. But the more cautious approach has taken a toll. Two weeks ago, two dozen Hezbollah fighters were reportedly killed when their convoy of SUVs was ambushed while traveling to the frontline.

While the group's exact fatalities are hard to quantify, fresh “martyr” pictures are posted online most days. 

On a rescue mission

Jaber was killed during a rescue mission for two missing fighters. Under covering fire, Jaber and a medic ran to a building where the two were located, according to one of his fellow unit members at his funeral. When the medic tried to open the front door, a booby-trapped bomb killed both men. 

Hezbollah fighters are taught to avoid doorways and windows in a combat zone because of the threat of such traps. Over the radio, Jaber’s comrades had heard him call out to the medic not to open the door. "He should have waited for the engineers to come first and clear the route. But his friends were in the house and he was an impulsive guy," says a fighter.  

Like most soldiers, Hezbollah fighters grow close through the rigors of hard training and the dangers of combat. When a team member dies in action, fighters often display both sorrow at their loss and pride in his "martyrdom."  

After Jaber’s death, his comrades held lengthy meetings with military commanders to discuss their friend and the meaning of his death. The purpose of this form of counseling, according to sources close to Hezbollah, is to maintain morale and focus, while reassuring fighters that their sacrifices are not taken for granted.

At the funeral, several of Jaber's comrades, wearing military uniforms, emerged from the hallway weeping and hugging each other. As prayers echoed from a loudspeaker, the mourners followed the coffin up a narrow street toward the “martyrs” cemetery. As the coffin approached, several men fired AK-47 rifles into the air, their guns tilted towards the adjacent neighborhood of Tariq Jdeide, a Sunni-populated rival to the Shiite Ghobayri.

To chants of “Labyakh Ya Hussein,” an exhortation of loyalty to a revered Shiite imam, Jaber’s shrouded body was removed from the coffin and lowered into an open grave alongside several other fresh plots.

On a Facebook page honoring Jaber, photos of him standing arm in arm with fellow fighters appear alongside praise for his sacrifice. 

“Congratulations to the martyr. Peace be upon you, Daeesh killer,” says one, referring to the Arabic acronym for the Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a bitter enemy of Hezbollah.

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