AMMAN/BEIRUT — At least two Hizbollah guerrillas and five Syrian rebels have been killed in fighting in Syria on the border with Lebanon, Lebanese residents and Syrian opposition sources said on Sunday, Reuters reported.
The clash between Lebanese Shiite Hizbollah and Sunni Muslim rebels, in a religiously-mixed area southwest of the city of Homs, shows a growing role for Hizbollah in Syria’s war, which is deepening the Middle East’s sectarian divide.
Iranian-backed Hizbollah, one of Lebanon’s strongest factions, is a major ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Fighting began on Saturday as Lebanese Hizbollah fighters, in control of eight Syrian border villages, tried to move into three adjacent villages held by Syrian Free Army rebels, said Hadi Abdallah of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, Reuters reported.
Syrian helicopters fired rockets at rebel positions to support the advancing Hizbollah unit, which included pro-Assad militia recruited from the villages it controls, residents said.
“The Hizbollah force moved on foot and was supported by multiple rocket launchers. The Free Syrian Army had to call in two tanks that had been captured from the Assad army to repel the attack,” Abdallah told Reuters by phone.
The villages of Burhanieh, Abu Houri and Safarja defended by the rebels lie on smuggling routes. Many locals have Syrian and Lebanese nationality and property on both sides of the border.
Hizbollah guerrillas, based in the Bekaa Valley on the other side of the undemarcated border, moved into the area last year.
Around 70,000 people have been killed in Syria’s 23-month-old conflict, which grew into an armed revolt after street protests against four decades of autocratic rule by Assad and his late father were met by live ammunition.
The war has worsened sectarian tensions throughout the region, with hardline Sunni Islamists dominating armed opposition and Iran indicating it will not allow Assad to fall.
Tehran has said one of its Revolutionary Guard commanders was killed in Syria by Syrian rebels on Thursday.
In a sign of sectarian brutality by Assad’s foes, a video obtained by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights showed members of the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Font and other fighters standing around bodies of five men killed at a gas field in the eastern province of Hasakah taken by rebels this week.
Three of the dead men, one of them in military trousers, had their heads smashed. A voice on the video describes the dead as rejectionists, a derogatory term for Alawites.
“These are the scum of society the pigs, the rejectionist ... God is greater,” the voice says as the camera zooms in on the bloodied bodies.
The revolt against Assad has prompted movement of arms in the opposite direction. The border area near the town of Qusair, held by the mainly Sunni rebels, has become an important supply route for insurgents under siege in the central city of Homs.
Mohammad Mroueh, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council who is from Homs, said the purported Hizbollah-led operation was designed to cut off the supply lines to Homs, Reuters reported.
The opposition’s grip on Sunni neighbourhoods in Homs weakened after Assad’s army seized several Sunni districts following the massacre of hundreds of civilians by pro-Assad Shabbiha militia, according to opposition campaigners.
“The Hizbollah attack indicates that the regime is preparing a big offensive to pacify Homs,” Mroueh said from Amman.
Homs is an important link between military bases in Alawite areas on the Mediterranean coast and elite Assad forces dug in in hills in Damascus, where fighting has been intensifying after rebels breached the army’s defensive lines around the ring road.
Sham News Network (SNN) an opposition monitoring group, reported battles on Sunday in the Damascus districts of Qaboun and Qadam near the ring road and in the contested Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk on the capital’s southern entrance.
Artillery in Qasioun Mountain in the middle of Damascus shelled the eastern neighbourhood of Jobar, SNN said. The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said 27 people were killed in Damascus and its environs on Sunday.
On the ground
Syrian rebels on Sunday captured army checkpoints near Nayrab military airport in the northern city of Aleppo, in the eastern province of Deir Al Zour and in central Hama province, a watchdog said.
In Aleppo, fierce clashes took place between Syrian troops and several rebel battalions, which resulted in the insurgents taking over the checkpoint near Nayrab airport, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Nayrab is adjacent to Aleppo international airport, a key target for the rebels, who have also been battling troops guarding Kweyris military airbase east of the city and Menegh airbase to the north.
The observatory, which collects its reports from a network of activists and medics in civilian and military hospitals on the ground, said at least six soldiers and a number of rebels were killed in Sunday’s fighting.
Fighter planes carried out raids on rebel groups encircling the military defence factories in the town of Safireh east of Aleppo.
In the eastern province of Deir Al Zour, rebels lost five men before capturing the Kibar checkpoint, seizing stores of weapons and ammunition and killing at least four soldiers, the watchdog said.
The districts of Sheikh Yassin and Hamidiyeh in the embattled city of Deir Al Zour came under army bombardment as warplanes circled overhead.
In the central province of Hama, the rebels lost one of their commanders when they took control of a military checkpoint near the town of Qalaa Al Maziq, where heavy regime shelling killed three people, including a child.
The Observatory also reported that five soldiers were killed defending Tel Osman checkpoint before it fell to the insurgents.
East of Qalaa Maziq, regime forces stormed the town of Mork, which has seen several rounds of fighting, with advancing troops being pushed back by the rebels, and then entering again, the watchdog said.
Regime forces are pushing to take back the strategic stretch of road.
The observatory gave an initial toll of 42 people killed on Sunday in Syria, where the UN estimates that nearly 70,000 people have died since the outbreak of the uprising in March 2011.
A Syrian opposition leader’s call for dialogue is a test for the intentions of President Bashar Assad, the international envoy to Syria said Sunday, as fighting raged between rebels and government forces in at least three Syrian provinces, the Associated Press reported.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, said the proposal by Mouaz Al Khatib, the president of the opposition coalition, “has opened the door and challenges the Syrian government to fulfill its often-repeated assertion that it is ready for dialogue and a peaceful settlement”.
“This initiative is on the table and will be on the table,” Brahimi told reporters in Cairo following talks with Arab league chief Nabil Elaraby, AP reported.
“We believe that if a dialogue begins in one of the UN headquarters, at least initially, between the opposition and an acceptable delegation from the Syrian government, it will be a start for getting out of the dark tunnel in which Syria is placed,” Brahimi added.
But in a statement Friday, the opposition’s main umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, said it would not allow Assad or members of his security services to participate in talks to end the crisis.
It did not rule out, however, dialogue with some members of his ruling Baath Party, saying it welcomed talks with “honourable people” from all parts of society who “have not been embroiled in the crimes against the Syrian people”.
Still, neither side has proposed a concrete plan for the talks.
Technically, Khatib’s offer no longer stands. Although he did not rescind it officially, he warned he would revoke it by last Sunday, if the regime didn’t release tens of prisoners — which it didn’t, AP reported.
Meanwhile, Syrian Parliament Speaker Jihad Laham told fellow lawmakers in a session Sunday that dialogue is the path that must be pursued under a political agenda Assad proposed in January to end the nation’s 23-month-old conflict.
“All Syrians must work within the framework of this programme to resolve the crisis in the country,” Laham said, pleading to “all Syrians, from all sects and orientation, to confront terrorism facing us.”
In a related development, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay pressed for international action to help stem the bloodshed, but acknowledged that achieving that won’t be easy. She alleged that Assad’s regime had committed crimes against humanity and should be referred to the International Criminal Court.