(CNSNews.com) – After months of half-denials and doublespeak, Hezbollah appears now to be openly intervening in Syria’s civil war, fighting alongside regime forces amid new signals of defiance from President Bashar Assad.
Gunmen from the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’ite terror group reportedly joined regime units Sunday in fierce fighting that was aimed at ousting rebels from a strategic town. The fighting took place along a corridor linking Damascus with a coastal strip that is home to many of Assad’s Alawite clan and regime loyalists.
Arab media reports said early Monday that Qusair (Qusayr), which is located near the northeastern corner of Lebanon and was first captured by anti-Assad rebels more than a year ago, had been retaken by regime and Hezbollah forces which in recent weeks had taken up positions near the town.
Hezbollah’s blatant involvement in the effort to recapture the rebel stronghold follows growing indications by the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, that it will not allow the regime in Damascus to fall to what he suggests is a conspiracy involving the U.S., Israel and radical Sunnis.
Mideast experts have long contended that, while deep concerns exist about what kind of regime might follow the toppling of Assad, his removal would indisputably deprive both Hezbollah and Iran of a vital ally.
Hezbollah has claimed that its involvement in the conflict was limited to defending Lebanese Shi’ite towns near the Syrian border – in keeping with its self-styled role as Lebanon’s “resistance,” defending its people against outside foes, usually Israel.
Nasrallah has also spoken of a Hezbollah duty to protect an important Shi’ite shrine in Damascus, in a conflict increasingly waged along sectarian lines. (Most rebels, including local and foreign jihadists, are Sunnis, and draw support from Sunni Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey; the Alawite minority is a Shi’ite sect, and enjoys the backing of Shi’ite Iran and Hezbollah.)
The fighting to retake Qusair marks a far deeper level of involvement, however.
The Syrian National Council (SNC) – part of the U.S.-recognized opposition coalition – in a statement accused Hezbollah of helping the regime invade Qusair and warned that a massacre could be imminent.
“Assad forces, with support from Hezbollah militias, as well as Iranian elements, are currently shelling the town of Qusair with various heavy weapons. They are leveling civilian homes with artillery and rocket fire, while the air force provides cover for the Hezbollah militias,” it said, adding, “there are clear indications that a civilian massacre will soon take place.”
The SNC urged the U.N. Security Council to prevent Hezbollah and Iran from violating Syria’s borders and invading the homes of its people.
The Syrian Expatriate Organization released a report which it said was from a Qusair inhabitant named Ahmed, who said at least 52 people had been killed in the Syrian/Hezbollah bombardment and more than 400 wounded – a toll he said was certain to rise.
In their reporting on the offensive, Hezbollah’s own media outlet, al-Manar, and Syrian state media referred to only two forces involved in the fighting – the “Syrian army” and “terrorists.” The state news agency SANA said the army had “eliminated large numbers of terrorists,” while scores more were arrested.
“We have at our disposal an army, security forces and the Syrian people to defend our country,” he said, according to a transcript released by Syrian state television. “Therefore, we have no necessity for any other group to fight on our behalf regardless of whether they are from Iran or Hezbollah.”
Set up with Iran’s assistance in the early 1980s, Hezbollah is considered one of the world’s most effective terrorist groups, counting hundreds of Americans among its many victims. It has been listed by the U.S. as a “foreign terrorist organization” since the late 1990s.
The group also plays a political role in Lebanon, where it has formed part of recent governments, despite the fact its very existence violates U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for the disarmament and disbanding of all armed militias in the country.
Peace conference in the balance
In the interview, Assad also said he would not resign – as many Western and Arab governments are demanding – claiming to have a presidential mandate until 2014.
(In 2007 Assad won another seven-year term, in an “election” which the state said garnered him the support of 97 percent of Syrian voters. His was the only name on the ballot.)
“As president, I was elected by the Syrian people and therefore only the Syrian people have the authority to decide on this matter, through dialogue or the forthcoming presidential elections,” Assad told Clarin. “But to ascertain that the Syrian president must step down because the United States wants him to or because terrorists and certain countries desire so is totally unacceptable.”
Assad’s defiant tone and the Qusair offensive come at a time when the U.S. and Russian governments are working on a bid to bring regime and rebel representatives together at an international conference with the goal of resolving the conflict through a negotiated transitional process.
Assad said in the interview he welcomed the U.S.-Russian initiative but was “skeptical of the genuine intentions of certain Western administrations towards seeking a realistic political solution in Syria. This caution is based on their continued support of terrorist groups in Syria.”
In its statement, the opposition SNC warned that if countries working for a political solution allowed the Qusair invasion to go ahead unchecked, that would “render any conference and any peace effort meaningless.”