Middle East

Syria conflict: Suspicions of deeper Hezbollah role grow

Hezbollah rally, Beirut
Image caption Hezbollah, which retains huge support among Shia Muslims in Lebanon, has maintained its support for Bashar al-Assad's government

The Syrian opposition is heightening the rhetoric against Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia group allied to Bashar al-Assad's embattled regime.

It has been accused of recently launching a ground incursion into Syria and of having previously sent fighters over the border to help the regime crush the opposition.

Hezbollah is not the only Lebanese party suspected of getting involved in the conflict.

Its arch-rival in Lebanon, the Future Movement of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, has also been accused of supplying the Syrian rebels with arms and money.

But according to Hezbollah's detractors, the party's involvement in Syria now goes well-beyond logistical support.

"For months Hezbollah has been shelling targets in the Syrian governorate of al-Qusair from Hermel in Lebanon," says Louai al-Meqdad, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, the armed group battling President Assad.

Mr Meqdad is referring to a group of towns in Syria just across the porous border with Lebanon. Passage from one side to the other is as natural as the blood ties that bind residents on either side together.

Overlooking al-Qusair from the Lebanese side is a string of towns with a large Hezbollah support base. The Syrian opposition has accused Hezbollah of using the towns as a base to send fighters into Syria.

"Now they have gone further," says Mr Meqdad. "They've actually taken positions in some border towns inside Syria."

According to Mr Meqdad, the Syrian regime seems to have handed over operations in al-Qusair to Hezbollah so its own troops can be redeployed to Damascus where they are more urgently needed.

"Al-Qusair will be the graveyard of Hezbollah if they ever think of invading it," he adds.

It is easy to see why the area is so fiercely contested.

According to Hilal al-Khashan, professor of political science in the American University of Beirut, the battle for al-Qusair is vital.

"It's the most strategic junction in Syria. Whoever controls it controls the road to Damascus and Homs," he says.

"It's also a very important supply route for the rebels. Through it, supporters of the opposition in Syria are supplying rebels with ammunition."

'Self-defence'

Little evidence has emerged of any military involvement on Hezbollah's part, but opponents have pointed to the funerals of several of its fighters last year.

The party said they died while "fulfilling their Jihadi duty", without specifying the nature of the duty or where the deaths occurred.

Soon after, Hezbollah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, offered a narrative of Hezbollah's involvement in Syria rooted in the complex history of Lebanon's relations with its neighbour.

Before the border between Lebanon and Syria was drawn, large Lebanese families owned land in areas inside what was later to become Syrian territory.

Image caption Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah denies his party is involved in the conflict in neighbouring Syria

These farming communities, numbering about 30,000, remained in Syria after the border was drawn, but retained their Lebanese nationality. Most of them are Shia Muslims and many are members of Hezbollah.

"When the conflict started in Syria, armed groups attacked some of these residents. Many of them fled the area but others decided to stay and to defend their lives, their homes and their honour," Nasrallah said.

"We didn't give them any instructions to stay or to leave. They decided to take up arms to defend themselves and this has nothing to do with fighting with the regime against the armed groups. It's an act of self-defence."

He repeated that narrative this week, denying reports that Lebanese residents of border towns in Syria had taken control of Sunni towns in the area.

"These are all lies with no supporting evidence at all. Actually the opposite is happening," he said.

Hezbollah's Al Manar TV channel has been highlighting the plight of the "forgotten" Lebanese residents of the Syrian border towns, but many remain unconvinced.

"Anyone familiar with Hezbollah's organisation would know that its members couldn't have simply acted independently. They must have received orders from the party," says Professor Khashan.

The party, he says, has little choice. "They are damned if they do, damned if they don't. They know that in both cases, when the regime in Syria falls - and that's a matter of time - the rebels will come after them."

In a speech in October, Sheikh Nasrallah said the Syrian regime did not need Hezbollah to fight with it.

"They haven't asked us to do it and we haven't taken such a decision so far."

Four months later Hezbollah's narrative remains unchanged, amid a fierce media onslaught by the Syrian opposition.

But regardless of whether or not the battle in al-Qusair is being directed by the party, it is certainly dragging Lebanon deeper into the Syrian war.