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Hezbollah's military prowess gives boost to Syrian troops

Hezbollah fighters are assisting Syria's government in taking on rebels across the country.

Hezbollah strategy new photo 2013 06 17Enlarge
Lebanese Hezbollah supporters listen to the televised speech of the movement's chief Hassan Nasrallah in Mashghara in the western Bekaa Valley on May 25, 2013 during a ceremony marking the 13th anniversary of Israel's military withdrawal from Lebanon. (MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Even as the Obama administration steps up lethal aid to Syria’s rebels, Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon say they are planning to assist the Syrian government in new military offensives to retake territory from the opposition.

A Hezbollah field commander in the group’s south Beirut stronghold in the Dahiyeh, and who gave his name as Jaafar, said the movement is training pro-regime residents in towns outside of the contested city of Aleppo in the run-up to what some observers say will be a fresh assault by army troops to rout the rebels. 

The “popular committees” outside Aleppo mimic those Hezbollah, a powerful Lebanese Shiite militant and political group, recently helped establish on the Syria-Lebanon border to bolster their operations in the battle for the Syrian town of Qusayr earlier this month.

More from GlobalPost: Hezbollah ups the ante, helps rout Syrian rebels near Lebanon's border

Hezbollah’s thousands-strong militant force is largely credited with having helped the Syrian government retake Qusayr, for months held by the rebels, in hostilities many say is turning the tide against the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA). The reported imminent battle for Aleppo, however, has not yet started. 

Hezbollah relies on Syria as a conduit for arms and supplies from Iran, the group's primary patron. Hezbollah is Shiite, while the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad is dominated by Alawites, who belong to an offshoot sect of Shia Islam.

“We held out for much longer than anyone expected, but it was extremely difficult,” said Abu Yehiya, a Syrian rebel injured in Qusayr and who spoke to GlobalPost from the Lebanese town of Aarsal. “By the end, Hezbollah's firepower was too great.”

For an isolated regime combating a now two-year-long armed rebellion, the addition of a battle-hardened movement like Hezbollah to the Syrian army’s ranks has provided the government with both manpower and momentum. But just how effective Hezbollah will be in routing Syria’s opposition in the long-term remains unclear.

With an estimated three to four thousand fighters committed to the Qusayr battle, Hezbollah’s main asset is its military prowess.

Battlefield victories against Israel coupled with training from Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps have cemented the group's standing as Lebanon's premier fighting force.

"Until recently, Hezbollah had been reluctant to get involved in the fighting," said Imad Salamey, professor of international relations at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

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"But with the war at a stalemate and the Syrian army unable to make substantial gains,” he said, “Hezbollah came in.”

With a touch of bravado Jaafar's men, all of whom recently returned from Qusayr, even said that they, not the well-equipped Syrian army, were the true victors there.

The Hezbollah commander even suggested Aarsal, long a logistical hub for Syria’s rebel fighters, would soon be a front in the Assad regime’s bid to take back control of its roughly 140-mile border with Lebanon.

He would not say, however, if Hezbollah intends to lead the fight for the town, which would be controversial domestically since it is on Lebanese soil.

"Aarsal is a major base for Jabhat al-Nusra and Al Qaeda, and these foreign terrorists must be dealt with immediately," he said.

Syrian helicopter gunships fired rockets at Aarsal last week. Jabhat al-Nusra is an extremist group fighting Assad’s government, and has pledged alliance to Al-Qaeda. Foreign fighters have indeed joined the group’s growing ranks.

But even with victories under its belt, Hezbollah’s effectiveness on the Syrian battlefield is likely to be limited, analysts say.

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While the group is useful in certain theaters of war, like urban fighting, it cannot hold territory for long periods of time, Salamey says.

“Holding territory is something that the Syrian army has great trouble doing across large parts of Syria,” he said.

Salamey also says the significance of Hezbollah's victory in Qusayr is overblown. Dozens of the movement's fighters were reported to have been killed.

"It was certainly a setback for the rebels,” Salamey said of Qusayr, which is now firmly in regime hands. “But they still hold many key areas of the country.”

The war has also taken on an increasingly sectarian tone, heightening rhetoric on both sides and boosting recruits for the war.

"They want to kill all of us simply because we are Shia," said Ibrahim, a resident of Dahiyeh and Hezbollah supporter. Last week, nearly 60 Shiites were reported killed by rebels in eastern Syria.

"Sayyed Hassan [Nasrallah] keeps telling us to hold back and stay calm,” Ibrahim said of the movement’s spiritual leader, a Kalashnikov by his side. “But how long can we remain silent?"

In a televised speech Friday, Nasrallah again reiterated Hezbollah’s commitment to the Syrian conflict, saying the movement would bear the consequences.

For Jaafar and his men, those consequences have already been felt.

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At a private home in Beirut, the fighters discussed how to handle the personal affairs of a comrade killed last month in Qusayr.

"Now he is a martyr and we cannot be sad about that,” one of the fighters under Jafaar’s command said. “He died for all of us.” 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/lebanon/130514/lebanon-hezbollah-syria-war-qusayr-aleppo-jabhat-al-nusra

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