Rockets slammed into a Hezbollah stronghold outside Beirut, injuring at least four people, hours after the Lebanese militant group’s leader declared he could mobilize thousands of fighters to help Syria’s rulers beat an insurgency.
As many as three rockets hit a southern suburb of Beirut this morning, damaging homes, Al Jazeera satellite TV said, showing shrapnel-damaged walls and cars. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman called the spillover from Syria’s civil war an act of “terrorist saboteurs” who do not want peace and stability for Lebanon, Lebanon’s National News Agency said.
In a speech last night, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called the fighting in neighboring Syria part of a broader struggle against Israel and warned that “foreign extremists” could destabilize his country if allowed to control Syrian territory near Lebanon.
“We consider the control of these groups in Syria a major threat to Lebanon,” Nasrallah said. “Syria forms the back of the resistance, and that resistance won’t keep silent and watch its back break.”
Today, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem told a news conference in Baghdad that his government would take part in peace talks next month in Geneva, sponsored by the U.S. and Russia. An earlier international attempt to bring the conflict to a close failed.
The Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, backed by Iran and classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S., is now fighting alongside Syrian government forces to retake the city of Al-Qusair from the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad. At least 27 rebels were killed yesterday in al-Qusair in Homs province, according to the Coventry, England-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
With government forces, backed by Hezbollah, advancing on key opposition strongholds, Syria’s opposition leader George Sabra last week appealed for rebels to concentrate on Al-Qusair and aid 50,000 people trapped inside. In recent weeks, the opposition has lost Otaibah to the east of Damascus after a 37-day battle, the southern town of Sanamein and Aziza near Aleppo in the north.
Syrian government forces entered Al-Qusair last week to secure the highway linking Damascus with the coastal mountain region that forms the Alawite heartland, the regime’s support-base, and cut the rebel resupply lines from Lebanon. The battle is seen as a key test for both sides.
At least 80,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising began in 2011, Vuk Jeremic, president of the United Nations’ General Assembly, said this month. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on May 22 said “upwards of 100,000 people” may have been killed.
The United Nations has registered more than 1.3 million refugees who’ve fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
The conflict has also spilled into Lebanon, at times in deadly clashes between groups supporting opposing sides and most recently with today’s rocket attack. Al Jazeera, citing its own correspondent, reported that five people were wounded, while the National News Agency put the number at four. The agency said two rockets were fired and that the Lebanese army had cordoned off the area where missile launch pads were found.
Hezbollah has been open about its support for Assad, 47, who belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, from the start of the March 2011 insurrection in Syria. In recent weeks, it has become more actively involved in the violence, and last night, Nasrallah made it clear his loyalists were ready to join the fray even more deeply.
“We aren’t forcing anyone to fight, but tens of thousands of our fighters are ready,” Nasrallah said. Despite Hezbollah’s policy to only allow those with siblings to fight, parents are insisting on sending their sons to war, Nasrallah said.
In response, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said on his Twitter account that Nasrallah was a “terrorist” who declared war on the Arab world. Stopping him and “freeing Lebanon from him is a national and religious duty,” he wrote.
Bahrain crushed a Shiite Muslim revolt against its Sunni rulers in March 2011, and has accused Iran of intervening in the internal affairs of Arab countries in the Persian Gulf. Iran has denied allegations of interference and accused Sunni rulers in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia of discriminating against Shiites.
Arabic for Party of God, Hezbollah is the only group that refused to disband following the end of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, swelling from a small militia to the most powerful political group in Lebanon with seats in parliament and ministers in the Cabinet.
It says it needs its arsenal of weapons to defend against Israeli attacks. Hezbollah spearheaded the fight against Israel’s occupation of an enclave in south Lebanon and claimed victory when Israel withdrew in 2000 after 18 years.
Hezbollah portrays itself as a pan-Islamic, rather than a sectarian Shiite, party. Its inconclusive war against Israel in 2006 earned it popularity across the region, including in overwhelmingly Sunni Gulf countries, despite its ties to Shiite Iran. Today, Syrian rebels regularly burn Hezbollah’s yellow flag and stomp on its leaders’ pictures.
“Just as I promised you victory in 2006 war, I again pledge today to bring you victory,” Nasrallah said.
Hezbollah fighters are part of Assad’s “killing machine” and Hezbollah leaders continue to coordinate with Iran to “prop up a murderous and desperate dictator,” Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said on Oct. 15.
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