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Hezbollah steps up in Syria as Israel tries to ease tension


Wall Street Journal: Hezbollah fighters joined Syrian government forces in the siege of a rebel-held town inside the war-torn country on Monday, local residents said, deepening the Iran-backed group’s involvement in Syria’s civil war and raising alarm among U.S. officials.

The Wall Street Journal

Hezbollah fighters joined Syrian government forces in the siege of a rebel-held town inside the war-torn country on Monday, local residents said, deepening the Iran-backed group’s involvement in Syria’s civil war and raising alarm among U.S. officials.

Israel tried to tamp down tensions in the region, meanwhile, one day after it launched its second recent attack on arms shipments inside Syria that intelligence experts say were Hezbollah-bound Iranian missiles.

The latest phase of Syria’s conflict raises fresh U.S. concerns about Hezbollah, a Tehran-backed group that is a member of Lebanon’s governing partnership and is deemed by the U.S. to be a terrorist organization. U.S. officials have seen units of Hezbollah fighters emerging in different parts of Syria with numbers ranging from 2,000 to 2,500 fighters, a U.S. official said.

“These folks will turn up trained and battle-hardened,” the official said.

This development has changed the calculations of U.S. intelligence and diplomatic officials who are trying to gauge how long Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will remain in power. This development bolsters Mr. Assad “in a huge way,” said the U.S. official, and it makes the Syrian opposition fighters less effective.

Heightening alarm, on the opposite side of Syria’s battle, fighters from the al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front now number around 6,000, with hundreds more joining the fight each day, the official said.

On Monday, for the second day running, Hezbollah militants fought alongside Syrian government forces in a battle to wrest control of Qusayr, a rebel-held town in Syria, 10 miles from Lebanon’s border, residents say. Syrian and Hezbollah forces have been closing in from opposite sides of the town in a pincer movement as Syrian jets have bombed the town—where, according to locals, some 5,000 rebels are holed up along with thousands of civilians.

Hezbollah hasn’t acknowledged its role in the current battles in Qusayr. Hezbollah fighters and residents along the Lebanon-Syria border declined to estimate how many Hezbollah fighters were in Syria.

The group’s survival as a paramilitary force, however, depends largely upon President Assad’s Shiite-friendly regime, which for decades has served as a conduit for arms and support from Iran to Hezbollah.

Qusayr’s capture would mark the Assad regime’s first military victory with Hezbollah’s direct aid. It would eliminate a key rebel threat to a corridor that runs between Damascus and Syria’s Mediterranean coast, where the Assad regime enjoys its deepest support.

The battle also shows Iran’s lengthening shadow on Syria’s war: Hezbollah, after spending nearly two years on the sidelines of Syria’s conflict, has joined the battle at what appears to be Tehran’s urging.

Israel, for its part, appears to be calculating that its recent bold strikes will pass without direct retaliation. Both Mr. Assad’s regime and Hezbollah are considered to be too mired in the Syrian war now to have the stomach to open a new front against heavily armed Israel, say Israeli security analysts.

Israel hasn’t confirmed or denied the air attacks over recent days, which Western intelligence officials say targeted shipments of Iranian Fateh 110 surface-to-surface missiles inside Syria.

An Israeli official said Monday, however, that its aim is to strike at Hezbollah, not Syria. Israel “is making it clear that if there is activity, it is only against Hezbollah and not the regime,” Likud Knesset Member Tzachi Hanegbi said in an interview with Israel Radio.

Israel also canceled military exercises planned for later this week near the Lebanon border, which would be seen as provocative, and lifted a ban on civil aviation instituted Sunday after the most recent airstrike.

“There are no winds of war,” Yair Golan, the chief of the Israeli army’s northern command, said Monday. “Hysteria is not necessary. Everything is relaxed. Residents of the north can sleep peacefully. Everything is under control.”

Hezbollah has made no secret of its deep ties to Tehran and Damascus. From the start of Syria’s uprising, however, it urged both sides to resolve their differences through dialogue.

That stance has shifted in recent months, according to people familiar with the group. Hezbollah has come to see the conflict as less of an uprising against an unpopular ruler and more of a sectarian war, in which Syria’s chiefly Sunni opposition, backed by Sunni Gulf states as well as the U.S., is threatening Shiite populations and attempting to undercut the regional clout of the group’s Shiite allies and backers.

Emblematic of this transformation was a photo released in April by Iran, which showed Hezbollah leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah during a visit to Tehran standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“Normally visitors are shown seated across from Khamenei or embracing his hand, like supplicants,” said Khattar Abou Diab, political science professor at the University of Paris. “Here, Iran wanted to say that Nasrallah was the leader of its western front by having him stand next to Khamenei.”

Last month, Hezbollah forces easily captured 14 villages inside Syria, to the west and south of Qusayr, Hezbollah fighters and followers in the border region said recently. The group was also intimately involved in planning for the town’s recapture by Syrian forces, these people said.

Last week, Mr. Nasrallah vowed to defend the Assad regime and provide his followers in the Qusayr area with “everything needed for their continuity and perseverance” in the fight against rebels.

On Monday, Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television station broadcast a report from Qusayr that showed Syrian troops in control of a water treatment plant on the town’s south side. Explosions and gunfire could be heard in the background. The station also showed bodies of what it said were foreign jihadists killed in the battles. “There’s no turning back from finishing the job,” said the channel’s correspondent.

On Sunday night, a spokesman for the several thousand rebel fighters holed up in Qusayr pleaded with other rebel groups in northern Syria to dispatch reinforcements and ammunition to the mainly Sunni town, where an unspecified number of civilians also remain.

Syria’s conflict has in recent months entered its bloodiest phase to date, with hundreds killed on many days and more than 70,000 left dead in all, by the United Nations’ latest count.

Many of Syria’s rebel factions have urged the U.S. to step in with military aid. The Obama administration is increasingly considering a range of options that includes supplying weapons or taking other military action inside the country, according to U.S. officials.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry left for Russia in a last-ditch effort to gain President Vladimir Putin’s cooperation in ending the conflict and preventing its spread in the region.

U.S. and allied governments are increasingly concerned that a failure to end Syria’s civil war will lead to a breakup of the Arab state and a proxy battle for control of its regions among the neighboring powers. In recent days, Iran has raised concern with its threats to intervene more aggressively or retaliate against Israel.

“The Iranians are the only power that’s in the trenches inside Syria,” said a senior Middle East official involved in deliberations on the Western response to the crisis. “No one else so far has been willing to get their hands dirty.”

Israeli soldiers performed military exercises in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights Monday.

Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria is proof, say opponents in Lebanon, that it is placing its relationship with Tehran—and on resisting Israel and preserving its pivotal place in a Shiite axis of influence—above its domestic duties. Hezbollah’s political wing is an integral part of Lebanon’s fragile government.

Hezbollah’s “immersion in Syria is a reminder that its main job is to be Iran’s strike force in the region,” said Mr. Abou Diab, the Paris-based political science professor.

Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has been hastened by what locals say is harsh treatment of Shiites at the hand of Sunnis, according to residents of Hosh Seyed Ali, a 200-person hamlet that sits half in Lebanon and half in Syria, divided by a narrow canal.

Since the start of 2012, Sunni rebels in Qusayr have systematically killed and displaced Alawites, Shiites and Christians in the area suspected of cooperating with the regime, according to residents and some rebel fighters.

Sunnis from nearby Qusayr quickly turned against their Shiite and Alawite neighbors and business associates as Syria’s uprising took form, recalled Mohammed Hamadeh, a 66-year-old farmer from Hosh Seyed Ali. He credits Hezbollah, which holds sway in Lebanon’s northeast, for protecting the residents of this village. “Do you think we would be still sitting here if it were not for Hezbollah,” he said.

Many Hezbollah members and supporters now believe one of the main goals of toppling Mr. Assad—a quest promoted by the West, Sunni Gulf Arab states and some Lebanese factions—is to destroy Hezbollah in the service of Israel.

This point was reinforced by Hezbollah officials and clerics who delivered speeches at nearly half a dozen funerals and memorial services held across Lebanon over the weekend for fighters believed to have been killed in Syria, according to footage broadcast by Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television Sunday.

“We interfere in Syria and explain clearly why we interfere—because we do not want it to be ruled by this axis,” Ibrahim Amin al-Sayed, a senior Hezbollah official, said in one of these speeches.

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