Hezbollah militants march in Lebanon (File photo: Salah Malkawi/Getty Images)
New evidence over the weekend emerged of the growing involvement of Hezbollah in the Syrian civil war. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main opposition group battling President Bashar Assad’s forces, claims some 1,000 Hezbollah fighters entered Syria over the weekend and engaged in bloody battles.
The FSA spokesman said, "It's a coordinated ground invasion…Hezbollah has started a war against us."
According to Lebanon’s Daily Star, three Hezbollah militants were killed in battles over the weekend, as were 12 rebel fighters. The paper is characterizing the fighting as “the worst near the border with Lebanon since the uprising erupted.” It warned Hezbollah’s increasing involvement in Syria could portend a spillover of the civil conflict into next-door Lebanon. It also provides further evidence of the sectarian divide of the combatants, the Shi’ite Hezbollah pitted against Sunni rebels, many of whom are themselves radical jihadis from neighboring countries.
The Syrian National Council (SNC) is accusing Hezbollah of “military intervention” and of employing "heavy weapons openly and under the auspices of the Syrian regime army."
It called the development a "serious threat to Syrian-Lebanese relations and regional peace and security."
Hezbollah is allied with President Assad who represents the minority Alawite sect of Shi’ite Islam. Both Hezbollah and Assad are supported by Iran.
The clashes took place southwest of Homs in an area that is home to both Shi’ites and Sunnis. Reuters reports:
Fighting began on Saturday as Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, in control of eight Syrian border villages, tried to move into three adjacent villages held by Syrian Free Army rebels, said Hadi al-Abdallah of the Syrian Revolution General Commission.
Syrian helicopters fired rockets at rebel positions to support the advancing Hezbollah unit, which included pro-Assad militia recruited from the villages it controls, residents said.
"The Hezbollah force moved on foot and was supported by multiple rocket launchers. The Free Syrian Army had to call in two tanks that had been captured from the Assad army to repel the attack," Abdallah told Reuters by phone.
The villages of Burhanieh, Abu Houri and Safarja defended by the rebels lie on smuggling routes. Many locals have Syrian and Lebanese nationality and property on both sides of the border.
According to Reuters, Hezbollah guerrillas started crossing the Syrian border from their base in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley last year.
President Bashar Assad and his late father Hafez Assad have allowed Hezbollah to receive its weapons from Iran via Damascus, which are then transported over the border to Lebanon, a key supply route for the terrorist group. Since the Syrian conflict began, Israel and the U.S. have been sounding the alarm over the possibility that Hezbollah or other terror groups could seize Assad’s chemical weapons were the regime to collapse.
Reuters explains that the border area near Qusair, in rebel control, “has become an important supply route for insurgents under siege in the central city of Homs.” It reports:
Mohammad Mroueh, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council who is from Homs, said the purported Hezbollah-led operation was designed to cut off the supply lines to Homs.
The opposition's grip on Sunni neighborhoods in Homs weakened after Assad's army seized several Sunni districts following the massacre of hundreds of civilians by pro-Assad Shabbiha militia, according to opposition campaigners.
Despite the reports from rebel sources who say they recognize the Hezbollah militants by their flag, Hezbollah denies its members are fighting alongside Assad’s troops. Lebanon’s Daily Star points out that the militant group sometimes announces the death of one of its members killed “carrying out his jihadist duty,” but without providing details.
In October, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah admitted that Hezbollah fighters were fighting jihadi rebels in Syria, but that they were doing so on their own, not as emissaries of the radical group.
The Washington Post reported last week that Iran and Hezbollah were building a militia network in Syria “to preserve and protect their interests in the event that President Bashar al-Assad’s government falls or is forced to retreat from Damascus, according to U.S. and Middle Eastern officials.”
Last month, Israeli jets reportedly attacked a weapons convoy bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon, apparently carrying Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles which Israel fears would be strategically “game-changing” were they to land in Hezbollah’s hands.