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October 02, 2012

Syrian Conflict Draws in Assad Ally Hezbollah, Widens His Rift with Hamas

by Michael Lipin

Syria's civil war appears to be drawing in Lebanese Hezbollah militants allied to President Bashar al-Assad while at the same time widening a rift between the Syrian leader and his former Palestinian militant allies Hamas.

In reports published Tuesday, Western news agencies quote Lebanese sources and Syrian activists as saying that a senior Hezbollah commander and two other Hezbollah fighters have been killed near the Syrian town of Qusair, bordering northern Lebanon. The reports say the three Hezbollah men were killed in a Syrian rebel ambush on Saturday or Sunday.

Syrian rebels have accused Hezbollah of helping President Assad to fight an 18-month uprising against his autocratic rule. The Lebanese militant group has maintained strong political support for the Syrian president during the conflict but has not admitted to any military activity inside Syria.

Hezbollah identified the slain Hezbollah commander as Ali Hussein Nassif. It said he and the other militants were killed while engaging in jihad duties but did not disclose the location. Hezbollah's al-Manar television network broadcast the funerals of the fighters in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley on Tuesday.

In another development, Syrian state television has made a scathing verbal attack on Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, a former ally of Assad. In an editorial broadcast late Monday, the network accused Mashaal of turning his back on the Syrian government and betraying the Palestinian cause.

The commentary appeared to be a reaction to Mashaal's appearance at an Ankara conference organized by Turkey's ruling party on Sunday. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been one of President Assad's strongest critics in the region.

Syria granted Hamas leader Mashaal a refuge in 1999, when Jordan expelled him for involvement in illicit activities. Syria shared Hamas' hostility toward Israel and included the Palestinian militant group in an "axis of resistance" with Iran and Hezbollah.

But, Mashaal began distancing his Sunni Muslim group from Assad in the past year, as the minority Alawite leader intensified a deadly crackdown on the rebellion, led by Syria's majority Sunnis. Mashaal closed the Hamas office in Damascus earlier this year and relocated to predominantly-Sunni Qatar, while other Hamas officials moved to Egypt, where a Sunni Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, took office in June.

In the latest fighting in Syria, a rights group told VOA that government and rebel forces exchanged fire in almost every province on Tuesday, from Daraa in the south to Aleppo in the north. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 20 people were killed in Daraa, while five bodies were found in Aleppo.



Syria's state-run SANA news agency said security forces operating in Aleppo killed a group of terrorists destroyed "explosives factories."

Meanwhile, Russia urged the NATO alliance not to intervene militarily in the Syrian conflict in support of the rebels. Speaking in Moscow on Tuesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said NATO also should not "introduce initiatives such as humanitarian corridors or buffer zones."

Assad is a longtime Russian ally. Moscow has vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions that would have condemned his suppression of the revolt.

Iraq has largely avoided taking sides in the Syrian conflict, but it appeared to increase the pressure on Assad on Tuesday, ordering an Iranian plane bound for Syria to land in Baghdad to be searched for illicit weapons. Iraqi officials said no weapons were found and the plane was allowed to continue its journey to Damascus.

It was the first Iraqi weapons inspection of an Iranian aircraft since Washington called on Baghdad to prevent Iran from flying military supplies to the Syrian government through Iraqi airspace.

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