Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah appears to be shrugging off a 24-hour ultimatum set on Tuesday by a Free Syrian Army (FSA) official to end the group’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.
Syrian elite forces and extra fighters from Hezbollah have been sent to reinforce government troops battling rebels in the strategic border town of Qusayr, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Wednesday.
Info graphic: Syrian unrest spills over to Lebanon
Info graphic: Syrian unrest spills over to Lebanon (Design by Farwa Rizwan / Al Arabiya)
Government fighter jets early Wednesday bombed rebel zones of the town as regime forces readied to launch a major assault, according to the watchdog.
Hezbollah fighters and crack troops of Syria’s elite Republican Guards had been sent to reinforce government ranks, Observatory chief Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP news agency.
The latest violence comes after Brigadier General Salim Idris, the current chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Council of the FSA, said: “If the attacks of Hezbollah [on] Syrian territory do not stop within 24 hours, we will take all measures to hunt Hezbollah, even in hell.”
“I will no longer be bound by any commitments I made if a decision to stop the attacks... is not taken and implemented,” he added.
He said “everyone” should “excuse FSA” for retaliating as “we are being subjected to genocide conducted by Hezbollah.”
Like Hezbollah’s militiamen, the Republican Guards have been trained in urban guerrilla warfare, he said.
“The preparations indicate that they are gearing for a major offensive” on neighborhoods in the north and west of the town still under rebel control, Abdul Rahman said.
A source close to Hezbollah has said 80 percent of Qusayr is now under government control, but the Free Syrian Army has frequently denied this claim to Al Arabiya.
“Despite the intense bombardment, the rebels are resisting fiercely,” Abdul Rahman said.
He added that Sunni militiamen from Lebanon had joined the battle on the side of the rebels.
“The fighting is becoming more and more sectarian (Shiite versus Sunni) in character,” he added.
Syria’s regime is dominated by the minority Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the majority of the population are Sunnis.
Control of Qusayr is essential for the rebels as it is their principal transit point for weapons and fighters from across the border in Lebanon.
It is also strategic for the regime because it is located on the road linking Damascus with the coast, its rear base.
“If Qusayr falls into the hands of the regime, it will be a hard blow for the rebels because routes used to bring in their arms from Lebanon will be closed,” said the head of the Britain-based Observatory.
“If Qusayr was not strategic the rebels would not be fighting to the death and the regime and Hezbollah would not have brought in their heavyweights,” Abdul Rahman added.
“The fall of Qusayr would also be a blow to the morale of the rebels” who for more than two years have been fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Iran-backed Hezbollah, a close ally of Assad, sent almost 1,700 fighters to Qusayr more than a week ago to support the regime’s assault on the rebel stronghold, according to AFP.
Initially Hezbollah said it wanted only to defend 13 Syrian villages along the border where Lebanese Shiites live, and the Sayyeda Zeinab shrine near Damascus, which is revered by Shiites around the world.
However, its fighters later encircled Qusayr as regime troops prepared for the launch of a withering assault on the town that is home to 25,000 people.