After Assad victory over rebels in Qusayr, what’s next for Hezbollah?

McClatchy Foreign StaffJune 5, 2013 

— The Syrian government claimed control of the strategic city of Qusayr in central Syria on Wednesday after a nearly three-week-long fight with rebels who’d held the city for a year, a victory for President Bashar Assad that raised questions about what’s next for the Hezbollah fighters considered key to the outcome.

Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group that’s fighting openly on the side of the Syrian government, tightened security in Beirut’s southern suburbs, its stronghold, in case Syrian rebels carry out threats to attack Hezbollah supporters in Lebanon.

Hezbollah fighters said the group was recruiting more militants to send to Syria. One Hezbollah official, who asked to be identified only as Hassan because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the group’s plans with a reporter, said he himself would travel soon to Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, where government and rebel forces have been in a stalemate for the past 10 months.

Hassan made it clear that religious differences between the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah and the mostly Sunni Muslim rebels in Syria were vital to its ability to find men willing to fight in Syria.

“We’re recruiting,” Hassan said. “The biggest mistake (the rebels) in Syria made is insulting our beliefs. That’s the most dangerous thing you can do.”

How many Hezbollah militants took part in the fighting for Qusayr is unknown, but their intervention on behalf of the Syrian government brought denunciation from rebels and the United States, which called last week for them to withdraw. Hezbollah members interviewed in Beirut portrayed their group as having taken the lead in the fighting, though Assad, in a recorded interview last week with a Hezbollah television station, said the number of Hezbollah fighters was a “drop in the ocean” compared with the number of Syrian government troops fighting the rebels.

There was scant mention of Hezbollah in Syrian news accounts of the fighting. Syrian television broadcast footage of troops in Qusayr’s center, largely empty save for their presence. The city appeared heavily damaged, and the pictures were corroborated later by foreign reporters who were allowed to visit the city. They reported that bodies still lay in the street.

There also was no official tally of the dead and wounded. Perhaps as many as 500 rebels were killed in the government offensive, according to the Reuters news agency, and hundreds more were wounded. In the end, only a few hundred rebels remained in fighting condition as Hezbollah and government forces tightened their cordon around the city. The rebels were bombarded by Syrian aircraft until the pro-Assad forces pulled back and allowed them to withdraw to the north.

A spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Damascus, which works with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to deliver aid, said the group was still waiting for permission from the government to enter Qusayr, after being told earlier this week to wait for an end to the fighting.

“Right now we’re hearing reports that the inhabitants of Qusayr have fled,” said Rima Kamal, the ICRC spokeswoman.

The battle for Qusayr had become symbolic for both sides, cast in increasingly sectarian terms. Some of Hezbollah’s militants justify their presence in Syria by arguing that the rebels are heavily supported by radical Sunnis who believe Shiites to be apostates.

There’s a geopolitical dynamic as well, as Shiite-dominated Iran backs Hezbollah and the Syrian government, while the rebels have been supported by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Sunni rivals to Iran. Russia also has backed the Syrian government, while the United States and other European countries back the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the umbrella group that many countries recognize as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

The government victory at Qusayr complicated plans for a peace conference that the United States and Russia have said they’ll hold. The opposition coalition had said previously that it wouldn’t attend to protest Hezbollah’s involvement in Qusayr, and the U.N.’s Syria envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, said Wednesday that the talks wouldn’t be until July.

In Beirut, there were reports of residents setting off celebratory fireworks as news of Qusayr’s fall spread. But fears of retributive attacks by pro-rebel fighters also were heightened, and Hezbollah deployed its militiamen in the areas it controls, particularly in the southern suburbs, which often are referred to collectively as “Dahiyeh.”

Thousands of Syrians lived in Beirut before the war, often employed in construction. Thousands more have now fled Syria for the city, as workers who previously had sent remittances home and kept their families in Syria have brought them to the safety of Lebanon. The United Nations says that more than half a million Syrians have fled to Lebanon.

According to Hassan, who’s responsible for security in a neighborhood in Dahiyeh, Hezbollah militiamen arrested some 400 Syrians in the area about two weeks ago in a pre-emptive strike against potential militants. The arrests have continued, Hassan said.

“The people who prove to be militants, we have a Syrian intelligence officer who comes, and the person may be sent back to Syria,” Hassan said. Among the evidence that would cast suspicion on a person is a video of violence on a cellphone, Hassan said.

Email: denders@mcclatchydc.com, @davidjenders

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