Thousands of Lebanese Hezbollah militants are amassing around the northern Syrian city of Aleppo in preparation for an assault on the city, Loveday Morris of The Washington Post reports.
The deployment demonstrates the group's complete commitment to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and may profoundly affect the 26-month conflict.
“The Aleppo battle has started on a very small scale; we’ve only just entered the game,” a senior Hezbollah commander told The Post. “We are going to go after strongholds where they think they are safe. They are going to fall like dominoes.”
The commander had been overseeing five units in Qusair, a town near the Syria-Lebanon on border where Hezbollah has been spearheading a regime offensive to retake the town for the last three weeks.
The increased presence of the militant group, in addition to the arrival of sophisticated military technology such as Iranian surveillance drones and Russian anti-mortar systems, has helped solidify recent gains made by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Hezbollah's preparations to attack Aleppo, which is nowhere near the Lebanon-Syria border, significantly raises the stakes in the war.
“A deployment so deep into Syria and in such a crucial place would be a clear indication that Hezbollah’s role in Syria was never limited to defensive aims but is geared toward helping Assad score major victories,” Emile Hokayem, a Middle East-based analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told the Post.
Aleppo is Syria's largest city and served as the country's commercial hub before the war.
David Barrett of The Telegraph reports that the metropolitan population, about three million before the war, has grown to about 3.5 million since the opposition seized half the city last July.
Rebels, primarily al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, have been administering city services in areas under their control while a stalemate persists.
Syrian rebels walk through rubble and damaged buildings near the Aleppo's Umayyad Mosque on February 11, 2013.
The guerrilla fighters of Hezbollah are training and advising the growing irregular militias being deployed by Assad.
At least 50,000 militiamen — known as Jaysh al-Sha‘bia i.e. "People's Army" — are now fighting for Assad, and Iran aims to increase the force to 100,000 by sending fighters to a secret base in Iran for guerrilla combat training.
Last week Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at The Washington Institute, wrote that "Hezbollah's all-in commitment is perhaps the single most important development of the war thus far and will profoundly affect its course."
Israel, which has bombed Syria three times this year amid suspicions of weapons transfers to Hezbollah, is surely watching the developments closely.
One unintended consequence of the Shia group's assertiveness inside Syria is an unprecedented galvanization of the fractured opposition.
Another immediate implication is increased sectarian tensions in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is one of two major political parties.
“The presence of Hezbollah units around Aleppo will only deepen the divide in Lebanon and confirm, in the eyes of its rivals, Hezbollah’s complete alignment with Assad,” Hokayem told the Post, adding that it's now plausible that Hezbollah is and will be utilized anywhere in the country.
Right on cue, on Sunday night a security source told al-Arabiya that one person was killed and 21 wounded in Lebanon’s second city of Tripoli when pro- and anti-Assad Alawite and Sunni residents clashed.
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