Lebanon dragged in as Hizbullah joins Syrian war

Militants ally themselves with Assad regime

Sat, Apr 27, 2013, 07:41

These men died in Syria, battling alongside the army of Hizbullah’s close ally, President Bashar al-Assad, against rebel units in a conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people and risks reigniting Lebanon’s 15-year sectarian civil war.

The Shia Muslim group, designated a terrorist organisation by the United States, is the most effective military body in Lebanon and its growing involvement in Syria’s quagmire has angered Lebanese Sunni rebel sympathisers.

The Hizbullah stronghold of Baalbek, famed for its colossal Roman ruins, now feels like a garrison town. Hizbullah men in military fatigues and police outfits are everywhere. As are Jeeps and Chevrolets with blacked-out windows – the group’s vehicles of choice.

On Wednesday afternoon, machine-gun fire rang out through Baalbek’s narrow streets, signalling the arrival of another dead Hizbullah fighter from Syria, 12km (7 miles) to the east.

About 30 of his comrades quickly aligned in the street and straightened their green berets, readying themselves to carry the corpse on their shoulders.

“We have one or two of these funerals every day in Baalbek,” said a young shopkeeper who asked to remain anonymous.

Five or six martyrs daily
A Hizbullah policeman in a polyester blue shirt told us not to film the public funeral. “There are five or six Hizbullah martyrs every day from northern Lebanon,” he said quietly, ushering the car away.

Lebanon endured a military presence by its historically dominant neighbour for 29 years until 2005. It has tried to maintain a policy of “dissociation” from Syria’s uprising against four decades of family rule.

But insulating Lebanon’s four million people from Syria proved impossible; refugees flooded in, Sunni villagers along the border began giving shelter, food and medical care to Syrian rebels, and rebel supporters in Lebanon sent guns and fighters across the border to fight Assad’s troops.

With no command structure, how many is hard to establish, but 12 Lebanese gunmen were killed by the Syrian army near Homs in November and residents in the Lebanese coastal town of Tripoli, where Sunnis sporadically clash with Alawites, say some local Sunnis fight in Syria, too.

Assad has told Lebanon, where power is distributed between Sunni Muslims, Maronite Christians and Shia Muslims, it must help him fight what he calls “foreign-backed terrorist groups”.

His men have regularly fired mortars into Lebanon and occasionally entered in pursuit of fleeing Syrian rebels.

Hizbullah, which was formed as a resistance group to the Israeli occupation during Lebanon’s own civil war between 1975 and 1990, has been called in to help.

It maintains that it is keeping its weapons and huge missile caches to defend the country, but fighting a foreign war has stretched the definition of the group’s mandate, angering those Lebanese who want to distance the country from Syria.

Open secret
Officially, Hizbullah denies fighting in Syria. But the secret is an open one. Michael Young, an opinion writer for the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, said in a column on Thursday that the pressure was most likely coming from Shia Iran, Hizbullah’s main financier and supporter of Assad, who is himself an Alawite, an offshoot of Shi’ism.

“Hizbullah’s becoming cannon fodder for the Syrian regime, at Iran’s request, is not something the party must relish,” he wrote.

“There is a price to pay for Hizbullah’s pushing the boundaries of Lebanon’s sectarian system to its limits. And this price may be the party’s gradual destruction, or worse, a Lebanese sectarian civil war.”

Late on Wednesday, prominent Syrian opposition figure Moaz Alkhatib issued a direct appeal to Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah to withdraw fighters from Syria to prevent sectarian war engulfing the Middle East.

“The blood of your sons in Lebanon should not be spilled fighting our oppressed sons in Syria,” Alkhatib said in a video message, following days of heavy fighting in Syria’s Homs border province where rebels say Hizbullah is most active.

“Hizbullah’s intervention in Syria has complicated matters greatly,” he said.

Alkhatib, a Sunni former preacher in Damascus, said Sunni and Shia Muslims had to overcome “a thousand years of strife” between their communities, or risk an explosion of sectarian conflict reaching from Syria and Lebanon to Turkey and Iran.

But already there have been calls to arms by influential Sunni Muslim preachers in Lebanon against Hizbullah, the “Party of God”, risking a return to Lebanese bloodshed.

One of the most outspoken, Ahmad al-Assir, urged supporters to fight Hizbullah inside Syria to help rebel groups, many of whom are hardline Islamist.

‘Move battle into Lebanon’
And on Saturday, Syria’s al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra front broadcast a statement on the opposition Orient Television, saying rebel brigades would “move the battle into Lebanon” if the Hizbullah-backed offensive in Homs continued.

The statement said rebels would use tanks and missiles to hit Baalbek and move fighters into Lebanese territory to attack Hizbullah there. Over the past two weeks, eight Grad rockets have landed in Shia Hermel, a sprawling agricultural town of about 100,000 next to the Orontes river on Lebanon’s border with Syria and about 45 km (28 miles) north of Baalbek.

None have caused injuries yet. – (Reuters)