BBC Arabic reached out again to us on the sensitive question of Hezbollah’s military involvement in the battle of Al Quseir, a Syrian town (25 000 inhabitants) a few kilometers away from the Lebanese border. Over the past week, intense fighting has been reported around the town, between the rebels holding the city and the Syrian army supported by Hezbollah.
The BBC wanted us to explain the strategic importance of Al Quseir, the extent to which and the reasons why the Lebanese group is helping the Syrian regime regain control over this small city (check the reportage in Arabic here).
The battle of Al Quseir needs to be understood in the general context of the battle for the control over the North-West of Syria. The city is located on a strategic corridor connecting Damascus and the Syrian hinterland to the coast and northern strategic cities such as Homs, Hama and Aleppo. Controlling al Quseir thus means:
- Stopping the rebels from attacking military convoys and cutting a key supply road for the regime
- Creating a buffer zone to prevent rebel fighters infiltration through the Lebanese border
- Securing the access to the harbor of Tartus, the main entry point for military aid from Russia
- Creating territorial continuity between the Lebanese northern Beqaa, inhabited by a majority of Shia, and the Alawite Mountain.
Some see this battle as additional evidence that the regime is building a stronghold in the Alawite Mountain and coast, and getting rid of any potential Sunni rebellion in the surrounding areas.
2. Hezbollah’s involvement
Signs of Hezbollah’s participation in the battle for Al Quseir have been accumulating over the past months, until Hassan Nasrallah indirectly acknowledged it in his last speech.
It first started with discreet funerals of Hezbollah members in the Beqaa. Today, the pictures of the Lebanese fallen in combat in Syria are honored as martyrs. Religious preaches in the Shia area progressively radicalized their discourse, calling the fight in Syria a religious duty. Those willing to fight receive monthly allowance, and the families of the martyrs get a financial compensation.
Hezbollah’s direct involvement in the fighting was denounced by the Free Syrian Army who threatened to take action if the Lebanese group did not withdraw. In a dangerous move that escalated the conflict over the Syro-Lebanese border, the rebels bombed on May 9 the Lebanese city of Hermel identified as the main entry point for Hezbollah fighters willing to help the Syrian army. Hermel was targeted again on Sunday.
In his latest speech on April 30th, Hassan Nasrallah declared that: “Syria has real friends in the region and the world that will not let Syria fall in the hands of America, Israel or Takfiri (extreme jihadi) groups”. In this context, it was “normal to offer every possible and necessary aid to help the Syrian army”.
3. Reasons to be involved
Hezbollah justifies its involvement in Syria saying that it needs to protect the Lebanese Shia communities established along the northern Syro-Lebanese border from Sunni extremists.
It also declared it needed to defend the Zeinab shrine in Damascus, a saint place for Shi’a.
Finally, it committed to help Syria recover the Golan Heights from Israeli occupation.
However, Hezbollah’s involvement seems to be more of a political and geo-strategic nature. The Lebanese group and its regional ally, Iran, consider Syria as a key support for the Resistance. Syria helped Hezbollah fight Israel in 2006, it is now their turn to help the Syrian regime face and defeat its enemies (Israel, the US and the Sunni extremists).
The fight for Al Quseir is a strategic one, stakes are very high and the battle will be deadly. Last week, the Syrian regime dropped leaflets calling on civilians to leave al Quseir. There are good chances that the rebels will lose, some fear a massive massacre.