BEIRUT (Reuters) - Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Tuesday that Syrian rebels fighting the forces of President Bashar al-Assad would not be able to topple him using force.
Nasrallah, a staunch ally of Assad, said in a televised speech from an undisclosed location that Syria’s allies in the region and the world would not allow it to fall “into the hands of Americans, Israel and (Sunni) extremists”.
“The battle is long ... We tell you (Syrian rebels) that you will not be able to bring this regime down through military means,” he said.
Syrian rebels have accused Hezbollah of fighting alongside the forces of Assad. The group has formally denied these accusation and said it was only fighting to protect Shi‘ite villages along the border.
But Nasrallah on Tuesday gave the strongest indication so far that his group was involved in fighting inside the country by admitting that his fighters had been killed in Syria. However, reports of the death toll were “exaggerated”, he added.
He also left the door open to greater participation in the conflict “if the situation escalates more.”
Assad is facing a revolt against his rule which has spilled into civil war, pitting the majority Sunnis against his own sect, the Alawite, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam.
The war, which has claimed more than 70,000 lives, has exacerbated sectarian tensions throughout the region, with hardline Sunni Islamists dominating the armed opposition and Shi‘ite Iran indicating it would not allow Assad to fall.
Fighting between Shi‘ite militants backed by Hezbollah and the Syrian rebels in border villages have raged in the past weeks, threatening to drag Lebanon into the Syrian conflict.
The border area is a key supply line for Syrian rebels, making it important for Hezbollah to stop rebels from taking over Shi‘ite villages there that would bring them close to Hermel, one of the group’s strongholds.
The group has said more than 30,000 Shi‘ite Lebanese live in the affected villages and that it was helping to defend them against the rebels.
“We say it clearly, we will not leave the Lebanese in the Qusair rural area vulnerable to attack by armed groups. Who ever needs help, we will not hesitate to give it.”
Reporting by Mariam Karouny; editing by Mike Collett-White