For months, the challenges have been severe in ferrying the wounded out of Syria for treatment in neighboring Lebanon. The refugees have braved strafing from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s warplanes and risked run-ins with the Syrian army. But in recent weeks, the hazardous jouney to transport wounded rebel fighters and injured civilians from war-savaged Syria has turned more perilous, with increasing intervention along the border by Lebanon’s militant Shiite movement Hizbullah.
According to rebel fighters and refugee coordinators, Hizbullah has been firing rockets from its military bases in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley at Free Syrian Army rebel positions inside Syrian territory and has been mounting more excursions across the border—and it reportedly controls a swath of Syrian territory along the Orontes River Basin, including more than 18 Shiite villages.
The increasing number of Hizbullah funerals in Lebanon is a testament to how engaged the militant group is in defending the Assad regime—the second most important backer of Hizbullah after Iran. The funerals—there were reportedly four earlier this week—are often media-free events with journalists distinctly unwelcome. All Hizbullah spokesmen are prepared to say of any fighter they bury is that he died as a martyr. Syria is not mentioned.
Earlier this month, hundreds attended the funeral of Ali Nassif, a Hizbullah commander who died, according to the group’s leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, performing “jihadi duties.”
All along the border, Hizbullah fighters are a constant threat to the wounded trying to make it into Lebanon. “The journey is highly dangerous,” said Dr. Mohamed Khalil of the Arab Foundation for Care of Victims of War.
“They go through the mountains to try to evade Syrian Army checkpoints,” he told The Daily Beast while on a visit to the 70-bed Al Abrar private clinic in the Al Burhaniyah district of the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli. “Can you imagine? All of the wounded spoke to me about going on foot or being carried using very primitive things including mattresses, and it can take days.”
Evading the Syrian Army is easier than avoiding Hizbullah. The Army is more stationary and their checkpoints more predictable; Hizbullah, less so, say humanitarian workers and rebel fighters.
The effect has been a decrease in the number of refugees making it into Lebanon since last week’s holiday of Eid al-Adha, the second most important festival in the Muslim calendar. Ameen Mando, the 28-year-old Syrian-born coordinator of a refugee group in Tripoli that helps 2,000 Syrian families, believes that fall-off is due to increased airstrikes targeting refugees and Hizbullah’s movements along the border. “Their presence is very strong now," Mando says.
With Hizbullah’s activity, it is making it more difficult for the rebels to move arms and ammunition—and the occasional Grad rocket—from Lebanon into Syria. “They say they are defending their borders, but they are protecting Assad,” says an FSA rebel commander who goes by the name Abu Osama.
Hizbullah’s shelling of rebellious Syrian villages around Qusayr, near Homs, was first reported Oct. 17, and it hasn't let up, say rebel commanders and refugees. The rockets are launched from bases around Hermel in the Shiite-dominated northern Bekaa, about 10 miles from the Syrian border, which is virtually a closed-off military zone. There is no interference by the Lebanese Army in these attacks, a sign that the government in Beirut—which is reliant on Hizbullah for survival—is not likely to order a ceasefire, despite its official “policy of disassociation” when it comes to the Syrian civil war.
FSA rebel commanders here talk of launching a major new offensive on Damascus within the next two weeks—but they acknowledge that Hizbullah’s presence is confusing their planning. They also suspect that more Hizbullah fighters will appear in the Syrian capital to boost Assad’s presidential guards and the Army 4th Division when the rebels redouble their attack there.
Hizbullah’s entanglement in Syria is a clear indication that the group has no intention of distancing itself from its longtime ally, and main Syria patron, Iran. In this, the group is taking a distinctly different path from Palestine’s Hamas movement, the only Sunni member of the so-called Axis of Resistance. (Assad’s regime is predominantly Alawite, an offshoot Shiite sect.) Hamas leaders recently welcomed the emir of Qatar—who has been reportedly funding the FSA and is a sharp critic of Assad—for a visit to Gaza. Several Hamas leaders who were based in Damascus left the Syrian capital in the early months of the conflict, and the Emir’s trip is now seen widely in the Middle East as marking the end of Hamas’s alignment with Iran and Assad.
The fraying of the Axis of Resistance comes only a few years after the Shiite-dominated anti-American alliance appeared unshakable, which prompted King Abdullah of Jordan to warn of the menace of a “Shiite crescent” in the Middle East. For Hizbullah, any further unraveling of the alliance would pose real risks. A toppling of the Assad regime would deprive it not only of a key political ally and source of much of its clout in Lebanon, but also of an important middleman for arms supplied by Iran.
“Hizbullah is locking themselves into trying to save Assad,” says Lebanese TV anchor Nadim Koteich, a longtime critic of the group. “They are betting the farm on Assad.”
“There is a minority in Hizbullah that was arguing quietly, 'We can sacrifice Bashar Assad and preserve a reasonable share in post-Assad Syria,’ “ Koteich says. “But the military wing is domnant, and they ruled that out. Their view is to deal with Assad as though he’s staying forever.”
In Lebanon, Hizbullah is keen to project strength, in a bid to persuade its followers and foes alike that the group has not been diminished by the Syrian conflict, now in its 20th month. Hizbullah’s critics believe the Oct. 19 bombing that killed Lebanon’s anti-Syrian intelligence chief, Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, was a highly tactical, albeit highly risky, assassination mounted by the group—not only to get rid of a dangerous enemy, but also to intimidate Sunni critics. The assassination, though, has risked inflaming ant-Hizbullah sentiments among Lebanese Sunnis.
Hizbullah’s leaders have been careful not to allow any internal discussion over Syria to be aired publicly, and they recently postponed their general convention. Media management is in high gear, and only official spokesmen—who can be trusted to keep on message—are making statements. The one thing Hizbullah doesn’t want is a public debate in Lebanon about its actions in Syria and its support for Assad. “They are participating in a war that cuts against their mythology,” says Koteich. “They can’t go on air and criticize a popular rebellion and say they are supporting Assad because the regime is right and the Syrian people are not.”