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Analysts see Qusair as first Hezbollah step in Syria

Hezbollah supporters fire weapons as they celebrate the fall of the Syrian town of Qusair to forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah fighters, in Bazzalieh village, Lebanon, near the Lebanese-Syrian border, Wednesday, June 5, 2013. The Syrian army captured a strategic town near the Lebanese border on Wednesday after a grueling three-week battle, handing a heavy defeat to rebels and solidifying a shift in the country's civHezbollah supporters fire guns in Lebanon’s Bazzalieh village

BEIRUT: Hezbollah is likely to expand its military operations in Syria by continuing to fight rebels in select key cities, alongside the Syrian army, after the fall of Qusair Wednesday, analysts said.“I think it [Hezbollah] will continue [fighting]. It will move now to fight in Aleppo and the suburbs of Damascus,” Hisham Jaber, a retired Army genera,l told The Daily Star.

“Hezbollah will fight anywhere in Syria that requires guerrilla warfare tactics. It fought in Qusair because street battles were required there, and I do not rule out the possibility that it will join more street battles in Aleppo as well,” Jaber said. “The Syrian army is incapable of fighting street battles.”

After more than two weeks of fierce fighting, the Syrian army, backed by Hezbollah fighters, took control of the strategic town of Qusair in Homs province, which links Damascus to Syria’s Alawite heartland on the coast.

Jaber said Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah made his intentions to fight clear in his speech on May 25 when he said that Syria was the backbone of the resistance.

“I expected Nasrallah to say in the speech that once Qusair falls, Hezbollah fighters would pull out from Syria. But he was clear; he said all of Syria is the backbone of the resistance and that he would fight takfiri groups wherever they are.”

Free Syrian Army spokesman Louay Meqdad said Tuesday that 4,000 Hezbollah fighters had entered Aleppo.

But Jaber said he thought the figures were exaggerated. “I do not have the exact number of Hezbollah’s fighters in Syria, but I think it’s only between 2,000 and 3,000 in all Syrian territories.”

“I do not think that Hezbollah can send more than 20 percent of its fighters to Syria. It has to be in the south given the daily threats posed by Israel.”

A senior Lebanese political source close to Hezbollah told Reuters the victory was a strategic success that would boost the morale of Assad’s allies. He suggested that Hezbollah would not necessarily intervene directly in other battles but might offer indirect help to the Syrian army.

“The battle will continue in all regions, but I believe Aleppo [will be] the first,” he said.

Retired Gen. Amin Hoteit, who publicly supports Hezbollah, agreed with Jaber that the party would fight anywhere in Syria after their success in Qusair. “The equation is clear, Syria is being subjected to Western aggression spearheaded by Israel. This means that Hezbollah is actually fighting Israel and it is ready to do this anywhere in Syria.”

Hoteit said the reason Hezbollah became involved in the Syrian war was not the weakness of the Syrian army or its inability to handle the rebels alone.

“By joining the war, Hezbollah and Syria are affirming the strategy of the resistance axis, which is ... together we confront the same danger,” he said.

Hoteit said Hezbollah believed Syria could not be left alone to confront a ‘foreign aggression’ which it believed would target the resistance next. “The Syrian opposition said dozens of times that once it topples the Syrian regime, it will move to attack Hezbollah.”

Hoteit said Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria would not affect its capability to confront any Israeli attack against Lebanon.

“I believe fighters tasked with confronting any Israeli aggression against Lebanon have not been moved to Syria, but others have,” he said.

Nasrallah first spoke about his party’s involvement in Syria in a speech last year, saying Hezbollah was helping Lebanese residing along a string of Syrian villages in Qusair to defend themselves against rebel attacks.

Nasrallah announced in April that Hezbollah fighters were also defending the Shiite shrine of Sayyida Zeinab, the Prophet Mohammad’s granddaughter, against attacks by Syrian rebels. The site is located in a Damascus suburb.

But it was only in a speech last month that Nasrallah confirmed his party’s heavy involvement in Syria’s war, saying a “new phase” had begun with the aim of protecting the resistance by preventing the capture of Syria by takfiri groups.

The Syrian government and Hezbollah argue that the bulk of Syria’s rebels are takfiri groups who consider Muslims opposed to their extremist ideology as infidels.

Retired Gen. Elias Hanna said that for several reasons, he believed Hezbollah would not be as involved in other Syrian cities as it was in Qusair.

“Hezbollah has a limited number of fighters, it cannot just send any number of fighters to any place and at anytime,” Hanna said.

“There are geographical factors as well. Qusair is close to the border. Hezbollah can justify fighting in Qusair to its supporters by saying that it is protecting the backbone of the resistance,” he said. “But can it do this by fighting in Aleppo?”

Hanna also said it was easy for Hezbollah to defend its decision to fight near the Sayyida Zeinab, given its religious significance.

But he did not rule out the possibility that Hezbollah would still participate in other battles in Syrian: “[Hezbollah] can provide training and pass on its expertise [to Syrian troops].”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 06, 2013, on page 2.

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