Tuesday marked the third consecutive day of a major offensive against Qusayr, located just across the border in Homs province. On Sunday, 28 elite Hezbollah fighters were killed and over 70 wounded in the fighting, catalogued by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. [Syrian] rebels suffered casualties twice as high, losing 50 men to air raids, shelling attacks and fighting, Three civilian women and an elderly man were also killed in the assault.
In Qusayr, a town of 30,000 visible from the Lebanese border, FSA fighters and residents have lived under near-daily shelling attacks for the past 20 months. In the last year, many have fled.
The regime has maintained a limited presence on the east side of the city since the rebels nearly gained control there two years ago. They hold a security square consisting of a police intelligence branch and three schools that were converted into military bases, according to Homs activist Omar Shaker.
Qusayr is a strategic point for Hezbollah, the regime and rebels alike. For the rebels, it represents a major supply route for smuggling weapons from Lebanon to battles across Homs province and beyond.
For Hezbollah, Syria is the lifeline to its patron Iran, and Qusayr is key to securing that route. A common Shiite religion unites Hezbollah and Iran, while the Assad family belongs to the Alawite religion—an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Qusayr is located along the strategic axis connecting Damascus further south to the northern coast alongside the mountainous Alawite heartland, where analysts say the ruling regime and minority communities could retreat in the event the government falls.
“Hezbollah wants to help the regime gain control of Qusayr, which is the strongest rebel flank of Homs. If Qusayr were to fall, and God willing it will not, there will be an open road connecting the Shiite areas of Lebanon through Homs to the Syrian coast,” says Qusayr-based activist Hadi Abdullah.
“This would become an Alawite state—the Plan B for Bashar al-Assad if his regime falls in Damascus,” he says.
The confrontation promises to be a bloody one, with the battle-hardened rebels who fought in Baba Amr in February 2012 now fighting for Qusayr.
But Abdullah insists that the painful memories of retreat from Baba Amr are not the driving force for the rebels today:
“Qusayr is crucial for the rebels because holding it will prevent the division of Syria.”
Syrian troops have stepped up their attacks in recent weeks, in a bid to push out the rebels from the key border area, but according to Shaker, neither the regime or Hezbollah — nor the rebels led by the Free Syrian Army’s local Farouq brigade — has made significant progress until now.
Qusayr has been a tinder box for weeks. In the last month, Hezbollah seized a number of villages near Qusayr, allowing them to attack from several directions. On Sunday, Hezbollah and Syrian troops opened nine front lines with the rebels, said local activist Omar Ismail, who now ferries medical supplies from northern Syria to his city.
In October 2012, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said that Lebanese Shiites living in the ill-defined border region stretching across Eastern Lebanon had taken up weapons as a means of self-defense. But he denied that his group was fighting in an organized manner or under his orders. “I cannot tell individuals what to do,” he said.
But as the conflict has dragged on, and funerals for Hezbollah martyrs have become a common occurrence in Lebanon, the role of the group in the fighting has become blatant.
Abdullah refutes the narrative of the Hezbollah chief. In addition to recently taking control of four Shiite villages, “Hezbollah occupied four Sunni villages after their residents ‘abandoned’ their homes, and now it is only fighting against Sunni villages,” he said.
Hezbollah’s deepening involvement in the conflict is made apparent by its presence on multiple battlefronts, Ismail said. On Monday, eight Hezbollah fighters were killed in Qusayr, while another Hezbollah member was killed in the Shiite Damascus suburb of Sayyeda Zeinab. The Observatory relies on a wide network of activists and doctors in civilian and military hospitals to publish daily tolls of the conflict.
“They say they are fighting to defend Shiite areas but on the ground they fight in any area they can access where the Assad regime needs their help,” Ismail said.
Activists say that it was Hezbollah, not the Syrian army, which took the lead in the recent assault.
“The army is only helping Hezbollah with tanks and air power, but the main role is for Hezbollah,” says Ismail, whose parents remain in the embattled city.
Abdullah, who has been uploading videos from the heart of Qusayr throughout the fighting, says that Hezbollah has the largest military presence there—nearly 77 percent of the fighting force compared to the regime troops, which account for only 20 percent. He also asserts that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is present in small numbers.
“For sure the army cannot fight without Hezbollah,” Abdullah says.
Hezbollah destroys former safe haven
Hezbollah built up its reputation as a resistance movement against Israel for the past two decades, earning praise across the Arab world for its successes on the battlefield. But the use of its fighters in the Syrian conflict has exacerbated sectarian rifts, already at a fever pitch in the wake of massacres against Sunni civilians in the coastal area of Banias.
“There was no sectarianism in this area before Hezbollah entered,” says Ismail, speaking of the border region between Lebanon and Syria. “In 2006, the civilians in Qusayr gave their homes to Hezbollah families who were escaping the war in Lebanon,” he says, speaking of the war between the Shiite movement and Israel.
“Now Hezbollah is killing those civilians and destroying the same homes they lived in in 2006,” he says.
Hezbollah’s former chief Subhi al-Tufayli took a hard line in an interview with Lebanon’s MTV in late February that any member of the militant group killed fighting in Syria “will go to hell”.
“Hezbollah is embroiling the Syrian Shiites in a tragedy. Every Shiite killed in Syria is killed because of Hezbollah,” he said, also blaming Shiite Iran.
Asked whether a Hezbollah fighter killed on the battlefield in Syria could be considered a martyr, he replied coldly: “You’re asking if he should be called a martyr for killing Muslim children? Was he liberating Palestine and should be considered a martyr?
“He is no martyr, he is going to hell,” he said.
Abdullah warned about the local and regional sectarian implications of Hezbollah’s role in the fight.
“If the situation continues where Hezbollah is fighting Sunni Syrians in Qusayr, it will mean the explosion of the entire region, especially Lebanon,” he said. “We are already seeing this with the clashes in Tripoli,” he added, referring to deadly fighting between Sunnis and Alawites that has broken out sporadically over the past year in the northern Lebanese city.