Beirut/London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Syrian Shiite sources confirmed to Asharq Al Awsat that Hezbollah and Iran are intervening in the Syrian crisis in order to “protect” Shiite towns, villages and religious shrines against the “Takfirists”. The sources revealed the presence of “Hezbollah training centers in the Beqaa valley to train up young Syrian Shiites, paying them salaries to fight in Syria”. Syrian opposition figures confirmed that there are roughly 1,500 Hezbollah elements in Syria, and the same number of Iranians assisting the Syrian regime, but said that the talk of 5,000 elements is an exaggeration.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, and its transformation into a military struggle, there has been increasing talk of Hezbollah participating in the fight alongside the Syrian regime. There is a sense of a strategic interdependence between Hezbollah and the al-Assad regime, the latter of which is a vital artery that connects Iranian aid (of all kinds) to the movement in Lebanon. Despite the fact that Lebanese politicians talk about Hezbollah’s refusal to comply with the Syrian regime’s desire to ignite the Lebanese arena in order to relieve the pressure on al-Assad, these same politicians have criticized Hezbollah’s involvement in supporting the regime at the expense of the people. Meanwhile, there is hardly a statement from the leaders of the Free Syrian Army [FSA] that doesn’t reference Hezbollah’s support and organized participation in “the killing of the Syrian people”.
Retired General Nizar Abdel-Kader, a Lebanese strategic expert, believes that Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian conflict is no longer a secret. He pointed out that despite the information that was circulated months ago on this matter, doubts remained until Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah admitted his movement’s involvement, attributing it to the demographic and geographical overlap in the border areas between Lebanon and Syria in the north of Beqaa and Homs Governorate. Abdel-Kader told Asharq Al Awsat: “We cannot accept that Nasrallah’s reasoning is that simple, because, as we know, Hezbollah was supportive of all the other Arab revolutions but denies the validity of the Syrian revolution because of the movement’s association with the Syrian regime, which in turn supports it with arms and offers Syria’s strategic depth for its war with Israel”.
He went on to say: “I think that, in light of President al-Assad’s insistence on pursuing the military option, and hence doing everything he can to stay in power, it is natural that Hezbollah would become increasingly involved in the battle, on the side of its ally, and it is to be expected that its operations would eventually take on a public nature and it would undertake some missions to protect the regime in the Syrian capital”. Abdel-Kader fears that Hezbollah is undertaking some of its operations against Syrian dissidents located in Lebanon, describing what Hezbollah is doing today as “a dangerous card to play”, but adding that it was inevitable that it would be played in the end.
It is not easy to talk with Hezbollah officials on the subject of their party’s logistical intervention in the Syrian crisis. Hezbollah, which initially described such allegations as “laughable”, now strictly adheres to the official rhetoric issued by Nasrallah, who said that the Lebanese fighting in Syria live there and are simply defending their villages.
However “al-Hajj”, a Hezbollah official in Beqaa, said that the movement is also defending Lebanese territory, i.e. the “Lebanese part” of the Syrian border town al-Qusayr. “Al-Hajj”, who asked to be referred only by this name, said that a section of this town is located on Lebanese soil and is being subjected to attacks from the Syrian opposition. He added that Hezbollah “monitoring officials” were able to record a conversation between armed opposition members planning to attack the town and kill its residents, “so they ambushed them and inflicted great losses, whilst one of our men died defending the area”. He explained that the situation in that area has now turned into something resembling a fault line between the two sides.
The Syrian crisis is of great concern to Hezbollah, but “al-Hajj” confirmed that his party is relaxed about the future. He reasoned that if the regime emerges victorious the situation will return to how it was before, and if it falls this is a sign of the return of the Imam al-Mahdi [a sign of the world’s ending according to Islamic eschatology].
A Lebanese opposition official also confirmed that Hezbollah is interfering in the Syrian war, pointing out that information available to him indicates that the group is seeking to prevent the movement of opposition figures in both directions, through its monitoring of part of the Syrian-Lebanese border. This explains the decline in Syrian opposition activity in that region. He asserted that Hezbollah artillery and rocket launchers stationed on Lebanese territory are playing an active role in the battle, whilst Syrian opposition figures have spoken about bombardments coming from Lebanese territory, particularly the village of Zata (with its predominantly Shiite population) and al-Qusayr.
Meanwhile, military experts doubt the possibility of Hezbollah openly engaging in battle alongside the regime, but they do not hide their suspicions about the Lebanese movement offering “technical assistance”. They suggest that Hezbollah is participating behind the scenes, in the battle operation rooms, and its officials are moving in significant numbers across the border.
Syrian Shiites have also confirmed new information to Asharq Al Awsat regarding the presence of Hezbollah in Shiite-inhabited areas of Syria, in addition to the party’s clear contribution to the protection of the famous Sayyidah Zaynab shrine in the suburbs of Damascus. Furthermore, the Syrian opposition have recently distributed images of a car with a Lebanese number plate and a poster affixed to it; the poster depicts a young man above the following words: “died in defense of the Sayyidah Zaynab shrine”. The opposition claim this image was taken in the southern suburbs of the city of Beirut, an area under the influence of Hezbollah.
Fahad al-Masri, an FSA official spokesman, told Asharq Al Awsat that “approximately two weeks ago, Hezbollah sent dozens of its elements to Mount Qalamoun”. He also pointed out that Hezbollah operatives are being deployed mainly in Zabadani and Homs, and specifically in the Christian town of Dabla alongside the regime’s Shabiha forces. He indicated that the coming days will witness multiple battles between Hezbollah and the FSA in these areas.
Al-Masri considers the recent reports of 5,000 Hezbollah elements inside Syria to be an exaggeration, adding that Hezbollah presence in the capital Damascus is limited, confined to specific sites and locations such as guarding the Sayyidah Zaynab shrine.
Asharq Al Awsat also spoke to a Syrian Shiite named Ahmed. He said that his brother Abbas, a Syrian from the town of Nubl in Aleppo Governorate, had joined Hezbollah’s training center in Beqaa along with a number of the town’s residents, and those from other Shiite towns in the region, in order to learn how to defend their families. Ahmed revealed that young men are being transported to Damascus by car and then to Aleppo by plane, following which they are deployed – via military helicopter – to the towns they are supposed to defend.
Ahmed, who works in Beirut, defended what these people are doing, stressing that his brother “is like any other young person in that situation; they are forced to act because of the Takfirist groups’ attacks on Shiite towns and villages in Syria”. He added that these men are paid good salaries “to compensate for the disruption to their lives”, whilst also pointing out that Iranian experts are also contributing to this effort. Ahmed revealed that the Iranians are providing money and arms to support the Shiites who are “threatened by extremist groups”.
There is no accurate information on the number of Shiites in Syria, but a report drafted by the US State Department on “religious freedom” in 2010 indicated that the Shiites account for roughly 2.5 percent of the Syrian population, and they are composed of the Twelver, Zaidi and Ismaili sects. The Ismailis are concentrated in the Hama Governorate and the city of Salamiyah specifically, whilst the Twelver Shiites are located mainly in Idlib Province as well as some towns in Homs and Aleppo such as Zahra and Nubl, which boasts the largest community of Twelver Shiites in Syria, namely 30,000 people. There are also Shiites in Damascus in the districts of al-Amin, Jura and the old city, in addition to their presence in the vicinity of the Sayyidah Zaynab shrine.
For his part, a dissident officer told Asharq Al Awsat that there is confirmed information of Hezbollah elements and Iranian experts being present in Damascus and living there as experts in the field of media and security. They are visiting media institutions and the security apparatus frequently, travelling in SUVs and participating in the planning and implementation of military operations. The officer, who declined to be named, reported that when the Houla massacre was committed the regime waited a whole day before issuing a statement on the matter. Iranian experts present in the Syrian Ministry of Interior condemned this action and accused the then Information Minister, Adnan Mahmoud, arguing that he should have immediately stated that armed gangs were behind the massacre. This ultimately led to him being replaced by the current minister Imran Zoubi.
Colonel Arif Hamoud, Head of Syrian Martyrdom Operations in the FSA, confirmed that Hezbollah is actively participating on the battlefields in Syria. He told Asharq Al Awsat that: “Hezbollah leaders have been tasked with training elements of the regime and its officers, especially the special forces and military and air force intelligence. These Syrian forces are mainly concentrated in the region of al-Draij in Damascus Governorate, where they are being subjected to training exercises lasting 3 to 4 weeks” He added that this information has been confirmed by officers who have recently defected from the regime.
The officer pointed out that the FSA has recently captured some Hezbollah elements in order to exchange them with some of its members being detained by the Syrian regime. This happened when Hezbollah Commander “Abu Abbas” was killed along with 15 other elements two months ago. The officer confirmed that the FSA is holding another Hezbollah leader, after he was arrested in the vicinity of Sayyidah Zaynab, which has a strong Hezbollah presence.