News / Middle East

Syrian Opposition Accuses Hezbollah of Widening War

A view shows debris along a street of damaged buildings by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Homs, Apr. 8, 2013.
A view shows debris along a street of damaged buildings by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Homs, Apr. 8, 2013.
Syria's opposition is accusing the Lebanese Hezbollah movement of declaring war on the Syrian people amid reports the Shi'ite militia's fighters have joined government forces in a battle against rebels in the central province of Homs.

Anti-government activists in the Syrian town of al-Qusayr, outside Homs, have reported mounting Hezbollah casualties in the last week as fighting heats up in the strategic pocket along the Lebanese border.

The opposition Syrian Revolution General Commission said Free Syrian Army forces killed 18 Hezbollah fighters in clashes earlier this week.

An activist who uses the pseudonym Abo Emad said that Hezbollah has been firing rockets into the area from the hills above Lebanon's northern Bekaa Valley for months.  He said FSA fighters retook two villages in the fighting, capturing 10 Hezbollah militiamen and killing a commander.

"We took some prisoners and have their [identification cards]," said Abo Emad.  "Because of the clashes and the battle we now have 10 prisoners and a lot of [additional Hezbollah fighters] were killed," he said.

Recruitment

The extent of Hezbollah's engagement in Syria cannot be independently verified.

Long an ally of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah has denied involvement in the Syrian fighting, saying it is helping Lebanese Shi'ites living in border towns and villages to defend themselves against rebel assaults.

But the group's recruitment efforts have increased the flow of Shi'ite fighters crossing the border, according to Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute's Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.

"Some of the people who are going to fight are actually Hezbollah. Some of the people more recently who are going to fight are Hezbollah militias they have created - popular committees they call them," Levitt said.

He put at 200 the number of known Lebanese Shi'ites killed in Syria over the last two years - an estimate he said comes by a count of reported martyrs' funerals for those with a "clear connection to Hezbollah."

Most experts agree the Lebanese militia has been involved in the Syrian conflict almost from the start.

The U.S. Treasury Department last August announced an extension of sanctions against Hezbollah for its support of the Syrian government, accusing the group of providing training, advice and extensive logistical support to Assad's military campaign.

Strategic corridor

Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said the Assad government "some time ago effectively handed over defensive security responsibilities" to Hezbollah for a number of Shi'ite villages in the al-Nabak area north of Damascus.

But he said the militia's involvement in offensive operations in rebel-held territory has escalated mostly in the last 10 days.

"What's new is the fighting in a slightly different area, near Qusayr, further north, between the city of Homs and the region further west," Salem said.  "That is not an area of Shi'ite villages, not an area where Hezbollah previously had a social and political presence," he added.

Liberating Sunni-held territory around Homs is crucial to preparing a possible retreat for Syrian government leaders to coastal provinces that are a stronghold Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

"Hezbollah has a particular role in helping the Syrian regime maintain a strategic belt that links the capital to the northwest Alawi homeland," said Salem.

Weapons resupply

Among Hezbollah's numerous reasons to want a so-called "Alawistan" along Syria's western coast, Levitt said, the most important is to "maintain a land bridge for the resupply of Iranian weapons."

Traditionally, most of Hezbollah's arsenal is smuggled into Lebanon from Syria.  But the fall of the Assad government would complicate Hezbollah's ability to restock following a future war with Israel.

Creating and maintaining an Alawite enclave would ensure continued access to the sea through the ports of Tartous, Banias and Latakia, allowing the weapons flow to continue via the secured corridor.

"The group is part of a broader Iranian alliance system [and] it doesn't want that system to break in Damascus.  The Iranians are helping, Hezbollah is helping, Iraq's Maliki government is reluctantly helping," Salem said.

A major political and military force, Hezbollah was assisted by the Syrian regime when it occupied Lebanon during its civil war.  Syria, too, has been a conduit for helping Hezbollah maintain its strong relationship with Iran.

Hezbollah is considered a terrorist group by the United States and Israel.

Fears for Lebanon

The Syrian opposition's new interim leader, George Sabra, said in Istanbul this week that "the Lebanese president and the Lebanese government should realize the danger" that Hezbollah poses to the lives of Syrians and regional relations.

Days later, two Lebanese Sunni sheikhs issued fatwas urging their followers to join Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad, calling their struggle a "jihadist duty."

The Syrian government has attacked suspected rebel supply routes inside Lebanon with artillery and warplanes.  But conditions in Syria are also pushing pro-Assad forces into the northern Bekaa Valley.

"If you want to move from Damascus into [Syria's] Alawi areas now, whether you are Hezbollah or the Syrians, the only assured way to go is through the Bekaa because the territory between the capital and traditional coastal Alawi enclaves is not controlled by the regime," Levitt said.

Mark Snowiss

Mark Snowiss is a Washington D.C.-based multimedia reporter.  He has written and edited for various media outlets including Pacifica and NPR affiliates in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @msnowiss and on Google Plus

You May Like

Myanmar Fighting Poses Dilemma for China

To gain some insight into conflict, VOA’s Steve Herman spoke with Min Zaw Oo, director of ceasefire negotiation and implementation at Myanmar Peace Center More

Australia Concerned Over Islamic State 'Brides'

Canberra believes there are between 30 and 40 Australian women who have taken part in terror attacks or are supporting the Islamic State terror network More

Recreational Marijuana Use Now Legal in Washington, DC

Law allows adults 21 and over to privately possess and smoke 0.05 kilogram of pot, and to grow small amounts of the plant More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More