Hezbollah steps up Syria battle, Israel threatens more strikes

AMMAN Sun May 19, 2013 7:28pm EDT

1 of 9. A Free Syrian Army fighter is seen with his weapon in a damaged house in Deir al-Zor, May 18, 2013. Picture taken May 18, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Khalil Ashawi

AMMAN (Reuters) - Lebanese Hezbollah militants attacked a Syrian rebel-held town alongside Syrian troops on Sunday and Israel threatened more attacks on Syria to rein the militia in, highlighting the risks of a wider regional conflict if planned peace talks fail.

Activists said it was the fiercest fighting in Syria's two year-old civil war involving Hezbollah, a Shi'ite group backed by Iran which they said appeared to be helping President Bashar al-Assad secure a vital corridor in case Syria fragments.

Speaking from Qusair near the border with Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, activist Hadi Abdallah said Syrian warplanes bombed the town in the morning and shells were hitting the town at a rate of up to 50 a minute. At least 52 people were killed.

"The army is hitting Qusair with tanks and artillery from the north and east while Hezbollah is firing mortar rounds and multiple rocket launchers from the south and west," he said.

Assad poured scorn on the idea that a U.S.- and Russian-sponsored peace conference planned for Geneva next month would end fighting that is deepening the sectarian fault lines between Sunnis against Shi'ites across the Middle East.

"They think a political conference will halt terrorists in the country. That is unrealistic," he told the Argentine newspaper Clarin, in reference to the mainly Sunni groups seeking to unseat him.

Assad declared "No dialogue with terrorists", but it was not clear from his remarks whether he would agree to send delegates to a conference that may falter before it starts due to disagreements between its two main sponsors and their allies.

The opposition will agree its stance on the proposed peace conference in a meeting due to start in Istanbul on Thursday, during which it will also appoint a new leadership.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country was "preparing for every scenario" in Syria and held out the prospect of more Israeli strikes inside Syria to stop Hezbollah and other opponents of Israel getting advanced weapons.

"We will act to ensure the security interest of Israel's citizens in the future as well," Netanyahu said.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied reports that it attacked Iranian-supplied missiles stored near Damascus this month that it believed were awaiting delivery to Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006 and is allied with Assad.

REBELS UNDER PRESSURE

Attacks by troops and militias loyal to Assad, who inherited power in Syria from his father in 2000, have put rebel brigades under pressure in several of their strongholds across the majority-Sunni country of 21 million people.

In one attempt to strike back, opposition sources said rebel fighters had abducted the father of Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in the province of Deraa, one of many tit-for-tat kidnappings being carried on by both sides.

"Mekdad's nephew was taken before, and exchanged for Free Syrian Army (rebel) prisoners. The speculation is that a similar deal will be struck for his father," said activist Al-Mutassem Billah of the opposition Sham News Network.

In the fighting near Lebanon, rebel fighters clashed with mechanized Syrian army units and Hezbollah guerillas in nine points in and around Qusair, 10 km (six miles) from the border, activists said.

The region is needed by Assad, who is from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, to secure a route from Hezbollah's strongholds in the Bekaa to areas near Syria's Mediterranean coast where many Alawites live, they said.

Opposition sources say Syria's coastal region could serve as an Alawite statelet if Assad should lose control of Damascus, a potential fragmentation of Syria along ethnic and sectarian lines that raises the prospect of many more deaths.

Sources in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley said shells fired by rebels had hit the edges of the town of Hermel, a Hezbollah stronghold, but no casualties were reported.

Syrian Television said troops "leading an operation against terrorists in Qusair" had reached the town centre.

"Our heroic forces are advancing toward Qusair and are chasing the remnants of the terrorists and have hoisted the Syrian flag on the municipality building. In the next few hours we will give you joyous news," the television said.

But al-Siddiq Brigade, one of several Islamist units defending Qusair, including the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, said in a statement that attempts to storm the town had failed and that 45 government troops and Hezbollah guerrillas had been killed in the battles.

Abu Imad, another activist in the Qusair region, said the rebel grip was tenuous but the army was far from in control.

"If Qusair falls, it will be a big problem because the regime will be in control of most of the countryside south of the city of Homs and the rebel forces holding Old Homs will be squeezed," he said.

The United Nations says at least 80,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which started with peaceful protests against four decades of rule by Assad and his late father.

(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; writing by Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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Comments (39)
TheNewWorld wrote:
Hezbollah entering into the battle does nothing but legitimize Israel’s strikes on Syria earler in the month. Evidently they were correct.

May 19, 2013 2:03pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Hezbollah isn’t just backed by Iran, it’s an iranian proxy force. It takes its orders from Tehran. It is in Syria because it has been ordered to go into Syria, just like it in 2005 assassinated Prime Minister Hariri on the direct order of Ayatollah Khamenei.

May 19, 2013 2:07pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Fromkin wrote:
Let’s assume it’s true that Hezbollah is participating in this fight around Lebanon border with Syria. Why is it Israel’s business since every faction participating in this war hates Israel?

Militias in nothern Lebanon, led by former western backed prime minister, Saad Hariri, who is directing militants’attacks against Syria from Saud Arabia, have been fighting alongside Syrian “rebels” for over two years. That somehow did not make Israel uneasy.

Truth is the West and Israel have sent their mercenary army near Hezbollah controlled areas to positioned themselves there and lauch attacks against Hezbollah and its supporters. Militants have no business controlling the area described here where the fighting is taking place in the first place. This area both sides of the border balongs to supporters of Hezbollah and the Syrian government.

When the militans, directed by Israel, overran these villages inhabited by Hezbollah, Syrian governments’supporters killing many civilians, that was ok for Israel. Now it’s reacting because the Syrian army is restoring security in the area. Every time the Syrian army scores a victory particularly around Qusair area, Israel makes some kind of threat.

The Syrian army has seized many Israeli made weapons used by insurgents in Syria and uncovered Israel made spying devices inside Syria. So the notion that Israel wants to intervene bacause of Hezbollah is bogus. Israel has been providing support to “rebels” all along.

May 19, 2013 2:45pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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