12:53am

Fri October 19, 2012
Middle East

In Syrian Conflict, Hezbollah Rears Its Head

Originally published on Tue October 23, 2012 11:03 am

We are standing on a roof, leaning back against the wall because of the snipers. We're right at the Syrian-Lebanese border, looking into the Syrian town of Jusiyah, standing with a rebel fighter who has his walkie-talkie going.

The rebel is part of a group fighting against the Syrian regime's army. The rebels have controlled a route into and out of Jusiyah for nearly a year.

It's a tiny village, but extremely important. To hold this little village is to hold the gateway so fighters can bring weapons, fighters, food and aid into Syria, and take refugees and injured fighters out of Syria.

The Syrian regime is trying to take Jusiyah. In the 10 minutes we stood on that roof, we saw at least 10 mortar rounds hit the village, if not more.

If the Syrian rebels had their way, they would hold on to Jusiyah and use it to create a kind of safe zone at the Lebanese-Syrian border, much like they have on the Turkish-Syrian border where fighters can easily move back and forth into the country and refugees find a haven in neat tent cities. Much of that is because the Turkish government, once an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, is now staunchly against his regime.

But this is Lebanon — and not just any part of Lebanon. It's a part of Lebanon that's mostly controlled by the militant group Hezbollah, which backs the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

For months, Syrian rebels have accused Hezbollah of sending fighters into Syria, but they had no real evidence this was happening. That evidence seemed to appear earlier this month, when Syrian rebels claimed they killed a Hezbollah leader inside Syria.

One rebel fighter, who goes by the name Abu Ahmed, says the killing was actually a mistake. He says the real target was a Syrian security officer who ran a detention center located in a school. Rebels say those who opposed the government were detained and tortured.

Abu Ahmed says the rebels laid a homemade bomb on the road, in hopes of hitting the Syrian security officer's car. Instead, they hit what they now believe was the Hezbollah leader's car.

Hezbollah itself acknowledged the leader's death but denied he was in Syria.

Imad Salamey, a political science professor at the Lebanese American University who studies Hezbollah, says there's a misperception in the region about the role the Shiite militant group is playing in Syria. He says that while many believe the group is engaged in a broad battle to help the Syrian army maintain control of the country, "I believe that Hezbollah selects its targets and selects its battles, inside or on the border area with Syria."

He says that includes making sure villages like Jusiyah do not fall into Syrian rebel hands, and that major swaths of Lebanon do not become a safe haven for rebels or their supporters. The problem, Salamey says, is it doesn't take much for limited engagement in a conflict to spin out of control and become something bigger.

But for now, Hezbollah's plan seems to be working. When we called the Syrian rebels fighting for Jusiyah late Thursday, they told us Syrian regime — with Hezbollah's help — had regained control of the village.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We've heard these warnings about how the violence in Syria could become a regional conflict. In fact, the conflict has, in some ways, already drawn in other countries from the region. Turkey is providing safe haven for rebels who oppose the Syrian regime. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are said to be providing arms to the rebels. Russia is selling arms to the regime. Meanwhile, Syria's close neighbor, Lebanon, is divided - perhaps dangerously so.

Parts of the country support the rebels. In other parts of Lebanon, areas under the Hezbollah militia, people are backing the Syrian government. NPR's Kelly McEvers has the story.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: We are standing on a roof here, right now. We're kind of leaned back against the wall because they say there are snipers. We're right at the border, right at the Syrian-Lebanese border. We're looking into the town, the Syrian town of Jusiyah, standing with a rebel fighter here. He's got his walkie-talkie going.

That's a Syrian rebel who's fighting against the Syrian regime's army. The rebels have controlled a route into and out of Jusiyah for nearly a year. It's a tiny village, but extremely important. To hold this little village, Jusiyah, is to hold the gateway so fighters can bring weapons, fighters, aid, food, into Syria and so that refugees and injured fighters can come out of Syria.

It's clear the Syrian regime doesn't want the rebels to maintain this gateway. In recent days, it's been trying to take Jusiyah back again. In the 10 minutes we stood on that roof, we saw at least 10 mortar rounds hit the village, if not more. That was a big one. Yeah, it sounded like it was coming from over there. Yeah, you can see the white smoke.

If the Syrian rebels had their way, they would use Jusiyah to create a kind of safe zone here at the Lebanese-Syrian border, much like they have on the Turkish-Syrian border where fighters easily move back and forth and refugees find a haven in neat tent cities. But this is Lebanon, and not just any part of Lebanon. It's a part of Lebanon that's mostly controlled by the militant group Hezbollah. It backs the Syrian regime.

For months, Syrian rebels have accused Hezbollah of sending fighters into Syria, but they had no real evidence this was happening. That evidence seemed to appear earlier this month, when Syrian rebels claimed they killed a Hezbollah leader inside Syria.

ABU AHMED: (Speaking foreign language)

MCEVERS: This rebel fighter, who goes by the name Abu Ahmed, says the killing was actually a mistake. He says the real target was a Syrian security officer who ran a detention center, Abu Ahmed says, was located in a school. He says people opposed to the regime were detained, tortured and sometimes killed at that school.

AHMED: (Speaking foreign language)

MCEVERS: Abu Ahmed says the rebels laid a homemade bomb on the road, in hopes of hitting the Syrian security officer's car. Instead, they hit what they now believe was the Hezbollah leader's car. Hezbollah itself acknowledged the leader's death, but denied he was in Syria. Imad Salamey is a political science professor at the Lebanese American University who studies Hezbollah.

He says there's a misperception in the region about the role Hezbollah is playing in Syria. He says many people believe the group is engaged in a broad battle to help the Syrian army maintain control of the whole country.

IMAD SALAMEY: Instead, I believe that Hezbollah selects its targets and selects its battles, inside or on the border area with Syria.

MCEVERS: Like making sure villages like Jusiyah do not fall into Syrian rebel hands, and that major swaths of Lebanon do not become a safe haven for rebels or their supporters. The problem, Salamey says, is it doesn't take much for limited engagement in a conflict to spin out of control and become something bigger.

But for now, the plan seems to be working. When we called the Syrian rebels fighting for Jusiyah late yesterday, they told us they had lost the village back to the Syrian regime, with the help of Hezbollah. Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.