MASHARIH AL-QAA, Lebanon: Beside the arrow-straight road between Qaa and the border with Syria stands a small bland mosque decorated with yellow Hezbollah flags and a portrait of slain former Islamic Resistance leader Imad Mughniyeh.
The mosque is a lone Hezbollah bastion amid a flat agricultural landscape populated mainly by Sunnis and used as a safe haven by Lebanese and Syrian militants of the Free Syrian Army. Parked discreetly – and incongruously – in the shade of a tree beside the mosque is an ambulance.
“The ambulances wait at the mosque to pick up wounded Hezbollah fighters from the border and transport them to hospitals,” said Hussein, a Syrian former irrigation engineer who today heads a small unit of the FSA’s Jusiyah Martyrs’ Brigade, named after the eponymous border village.
Hussein and other members of the Jusiyah Martyrs’ Brigade resting in Masharih al-Qaa claim that their most formidable foes across the border in Syria are not Syrian army soldiers but battle-hardened veteran Hezbollah fighters who they say are assisting the regime of President Bashar Assad regain control of a cluster of villages and towns in the vicinity of Qusayr, 8 kilometers north of the border.
“The regime’s soldiers are cowards against us. But we fear the Hezbollah men,” said Hussein.
He added that he had encountered some Hezbollah fighters on the road beside the border in Jusiyah and had approached them with bottles of water, pretending to be a supportive civilian.
“None of them were under 35 years old. They were very professional and tough fighters. You can tell they are superior fighters from the way they move in battle and how they fight.”
Accusations of Hezbollah involvement in Syria have been aired by opponents of the Assad regime since protests erupted in March last year. Many of the early accounts were generally less than convincing. Similarly, YouTube videos purporting to show Hezbollah fighters in Syria were inconclusive and often posted by people politically opposed to the party.
However, in recent months there have been persistent, but anecdotal, reports of Hezbollah fighters being killed in Syria and returned to Lebanon for quiet burial.
Hezbollah is believed to be assisting the Assad regime with combat advice and passing on the group’s formidable guerrilla skills to the pro-regime Alawite-dominated Shabbiha militia with the goal of turning it into an effective paramilitary force.
Last week, Hezbollah held a funeral for Ali Nassif, a senior commander who died “while performing his jihadist duties,” a standard phrase used by the group when announcing deaths of fighters in circumstances other than direct combat with Israel, such as training accidents. The Jusiyah Martyrs’ Brigade militants claimed that Nassif was killed in the border village of Rableh and was deliberately targeted for assassination.
“We waited for him to emerge from a school which they use as a command post. When we saw a black Grand Cherokee with tinted windows leave the school, we guessed it was him and hit it with an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade],” said Hussein.
In a eulogy for Nassif, Sheikh Mohammad Yazbek, a member of Hezbollah’s Shura Council, said that the veteran commander was “martyred among the Lebanese while defending those who were abandoned by their government.” The vague phrase has been interpreted as referring to Lebanese Shiites who populate several villages on the Syrian side of the border adjacent to the northern Bekaa who allegedly have been under threat from neighboring Sunnis and FSA fighters.
The emerging indications of Hezbollah involvement in Syria will likely spur heated debate in Lebanon, particularly given the government’s declared policy of disassociation with the Syria crisis. On the other hand, Hezbollah views the conflict in Syria as a confrontation with strategic consequences for the region.
The collapse of the Assad regime and its replacement with a moderate regime better reflecting the Sunni majority in Syria that moves closer to Turkey and Saudi Arabia would tear out the geo-strategic heart of the “axis of resistance.” Earning rebukes from political opponents in Lebanon may be considered a small price to pay given the strategic stakes.
“Hezbollah has no choice but to be there,” said a prominent member of a Shiite clan in the Bekaa Valley who is close to Hezbollah. “The opposition has fighters from Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia helping them, so why shouldn’t the Assad regime receive the help of Hezbollah?”
Furthermore, Hezbollah can argue with some justification that it is not the only Lebanese entity alleged to be directly engaged in the Syria conflict. The armed Syrian opposition enjoys the material and logistical support of some Lebanese Sunnis.
A number of Lebanese Sunnis – estimated at a few hundred – from Tripoli, Akkar and the northern Bekaa have joined the FSA and are fighting against regime forces in Syria, according to Lebanese supporters of the Syrian opposition. Others provide shelter for the FSA in Akkar and the northern Bekaa, allowing militants to rest, regroup and plan.
There have been several media reports – the latest in Thursday’s edition of the British Guardian newspaper – that Future Movement MP Okab Saqr is in Turkey organizing the transfer of Saudi-funded arms to the Syrian opposition. A Washington-based analyst who recently visited the Turkish border area with Syria said that Saqr’s name “is all over the place.”
Nowhere is the Hezbollah support for the Assad regime and Lebanese Sunni backing for the Syrian opposition more starkly demonstrated than in the northern Bekaa.
The mainly Shiite-populated western flank of the northern Bekaa is a Hezbollah stronghold and allows access for fighters to the Shiite-populated villages just over the border in Syria.
The eastern flank, however, contains a sizeable Sunni population between the village of Arsal and the area of Masharih al-Qaa some of whom are FSA volunteers and almost all of whom are sympathetic to the Syrian opposition.
That has led to the extraordinary situation where just north of the border Hezbollah fighters battle Lebanese and Syrian FSA militants while just south of the frontier the two foes eye each other warily – but peacefully – from their respective corners of the northern Bekaa.
Even the lone Hezbollah mosque, despite being surrounded by hostile FSA elements, has been left untouched. Similarly, Hezbollah has made no effort to engage the FSA in Masharih al-Qaa.
“If Hezbollah decided to come after us here, it would start a civil war,” said Ismael, a Lebanese resident of Masharih al-Qaa who serves with the Jusiyah Martyrs’ Brigade. “And nobody wants that.”