Hezbollah-backed fighters are taking an ever more active role in the ongoing Syrian conflict along the border with Lebanon.
They claim their mission is to protect Shiites on the Syrian side who claim their homes, villages and families have come under attack by Sunni rebels.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, leader of many of Lebanon’s Shiites and a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has said his group is supporting the cadres of fighters who call themselves Popular Committees.
It is confirmation that the powerful Lebanese militant group is playing a growing role in the civil war just across the border.
Syria’s regime is dominated by minority Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad are mostly from the Sunni majority.
Assad’s major allies, Hezbollah and Iran, are both Shiite.
The sectarian tensions in the Syrian civil war have spilled over to neighboring Lebanon, which has a similar ethnic divide and a long, bitter history of civil war and domination by Syria.
On Saturday, the Associated Press was granted access to one of the Popular Committee fighting units on the edge of the border village of al-Qasr.
Masked men in camouflage toting Kalashnikov rifles could be seen patrolling a dusty olive grove on the porous border stretch.
The Popular Committees were set up last year.
A unit commander, Haj Mahmoud, said that Shiite villages have been repeatedly attacked and some residents have been kidnapped and killed by rebels.
He said it has prompted local Shiites to take up arms to defend themselves.
“An agreement was made to form Popular Committees who are from the villages. More groups were formed to secure the village and its residents and to prevent the rebels attacking the village,” said Mahmoud.
As a result of the tensions, hundreds of Lebanese Shiite families in Syria have fled back to their homeland.
Villager Bilal al-Sadr lived in Syria for 14 years before deciding to flee with his wife, four sons and a daughter.
He said that he left after three of his friends – a Sunni, a Shiite and a Christian – were kidnapped and killed.
“We were in Syria for the first seven months of the crisis where we suffered a lot from rebel roadblocks and the intimidation and killing of people by the rebels,” said Sadr, a Shiite Jordanian whose mother and wife are Lebanese and from al-Qasr.
“Three of our neighbors were kidnapped and killed. One of our neighbors was only 20 to 30 meters away from our house. Some of them were executed by shooting, others were slaughtered, it was very dangerous,” he said.
Even though Hezbollah confirms backing the fighters, it denies it is taking part in the wider civil war.
Syrian rebels offer a different narrative, accusing Hezbollah of propping up the Assad regime.
Hezbollah’s deepening involvement shows how the Syrian civil war is exacerbating tensions between Shiites and Sunnis around the Middle East.
Syrian rebels accuse Hezbollah of fighting alongside Assad’s troops and attacking rebels from inside Lebanese territory.
In recent months, fighting has raged in and around several towns and villages inhabited by a community of some 15-thousand Lebanese Shiites who have lived for decades on the Syrian side of a frontier that is not clearly demarcated in places and not fully controlled by border authorities.
The Lebanese Shiite enclave on the Syrian side is near the central city of Homs and across from Hermel, a predominantly Shiite region of northeastern Lebanon.
The border region near Homs is strategic because it links Damascus with the coastal enclave that is the heartland of Syria’s Alawites and is also home to the country’s two main seaports, Latakia and Tartus.
In the past two months, the Free Syrian Army claims that Hezbollah has expanded its operations in Syria, mostly in central Homs province near the Lebanese border, as well as in Damascus.
They have claimed that Assad is relying on Hezbollah because his grip on the capital is weakening and he fears more military defections.
The Popular Committees are just one indication of Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian civil war.
Over the past several weeks, the group has held several funerals in Lebanon for gunmen who it said were killed while “performing their jihadi duties.”
It did not say where or how they were killed, but it is widely known they died fighting in Syria.
One of the biggest blows for Hezbollah in Syria came in October when a commander, Ali Hussein Nassif, also known as Abu Abbas, and several other fighters were killed.
Syrian rebels said his car was hit by a bomb near the Syrian town of al-Qusayr, close to the Lebanese border.
Hezbollah fought guerrilla warfare against Israel for nearly two decades until 2000 when Israel withdrew from an enclave it occupied in South Lebanon.
The militant group’s staunch support for the Assad regime is a gamble.
Hezbollah’s image in the Arab world as a resistance force against Israel is already eroding.
The group backed the wave of Arab Spring uprisings against autocratic rulers in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Tunisia, but publicly sided with Iran and Syria in their crackdowns on protesters.
Assad’s fall would be catastrophic for Hezbollah.
Any post-Assad regime led by Syria’s Sunni majority would almost certainly be far less friendly, or even outright hostile, to the Shiite group.
Iran remains Hezbollah’s most important patron, but Syria is a crucial supply route, without which Hezbollah will struggle to secure the weapons it needs to fight Israel.
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