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

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs