A Hezbollah fighter recounts battles in Syria
BEIRUT -- He sits on a couch in an inconspicuous building in a southern suburb of Beirut. A baseball cap pulled down low, his eyes twitching, Hassan, a Hezbollah squad leader, describes killing more than 20 men in three weeks in the Syrian town of Qusair.
“It was a street war. We went from room to room, from house to house, from window to window,” said Hassan, who is in his late 30s and sports a light beard. “It was guerrilla warfare with gangs, not a war with a traditional army .... So it needed a bit more work. It brought more fatigue. You want to deal with these people as they are dealing with you.”
Hassan, who asked that his last name not be used because he’s not authorized to talk to the media, is at the forefront of Hezbollah’s increasing involvement in the Syrian civil war. His account could not be independently verified but was consistent with other reports on the fighting in Qusair.
The Shiite militant organization has aligned itself with embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops against rebel factions comprised mostly of Sunni Muslims.
Assad’s forces would probably not have retaken Qusair if not for the help of Hezbollah. But that relationship is a risky gambit for the militant group, which faces the prospect of triggering intensified sectarian tensions in Syria and at home in Lebanon. Nonetheless, fighters like Hassan say they are convinced that the role of Hezbollah, an ally of Iran as well as the Syrian government, is in line with a wider strategic battle against the United States, Israel and Al Qaeda.
Hassan said he was responsible for commanding five Hezbollah squads, each consisting of teams of a few fighters, in the grinding battle for Qusair. In the neighborhood where he was stationed he estimated there were about 120 Hezbollah fighters hunkered down along piles of rubble and bomb-pocked streets and alleys.
“You can’t go from here to there without an order,” Hassan said, drawing his finger from one point to another on the table to illustrate. “You can’t move in a Jeep or on a motorcycle between areas. You are delegated to this area, and this is where your movements will be.”
Hassan said his squad, which worked near Syrian forces but received its orders from top Hezbollah commanders, battled rebels affiliated with Al Nusra Front, a Sunni militia with links to Al Qaeda.
“They were well-trained. They were focusing on sniping and shooting mortar [rounds]. We got two mortars right by the municipality building,” Hassan said, adding that four of his men were killed and the fighting prolonged because Hezbollah engineers had to be called in to clear land mines.
“You were fighting people who were using civilians as human shields, that is mainly what slowed us down,” he said. “We were thinking of finishing the job faster.”
Hassan returned home Wednesday -- the same day Syrian troops announced victory in Qusair, a strategic town that lies on a cross-border supply route with neighboring Lebanon and connects Syria’s capital, Damascus, with loyalist strongholds on the Mediterranean coast.
Hassan speaks of alleged plots involving foreign-funded Islamist rebels and U.S.-Israeli conspiracies aimed at “hitting the resistance” -- Hezbollah -- and dividing Syria.
“The project they were working on failed,” he said of his enemies. “There was a strategic thinking to divide Syria and hit the resistance .... The project is over, not only in Qusair but across Syria. The Russian viewpoint won. We are one united axis that runs from Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and down to Gaza.”
Hezbollah has taken on a more public role in the Syrian conflict since its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, recently announced the group’s involvement. The squad leader said Hezbollah was bracing for possible revenge attacks from supporters of the Syrian rebels inside Lebanon.
“We prepare for everything. For inside [Lebanon], for Syria, and for Israel. Hezbollah is ready for several fronts,” he said.
Thousands of Sunni fighters from across the Arab world and elsewhere are said to be fighting on the rebel side. Hassan claimed he came across many Arab fighters in Qusair, especially from Libya and Tunisia. There were also “blonds,” he said, describing fighters from places like the former Yugoslavia, Canada and Europe.
Hezbollah technicians managed to hack into the radio communications network of some rebels, he said. Hezbollah fighters started shouting “Game over” and “One-way ticket” in English and also some phrases in French into the radio so non-Arabic speakers would get the message.
Hassan expects to be sent on a new mission to Syria in coming days. He doesn’t know where. Potential destinations could be Aleppo and Idlib provinces, Jabal Zawiya or even the fringes of Damascus.
“Hezbollah can’t cover all of Syria,” he said. “Those who say Hezbollah is all over [Syria] are stupid. You have some strategic places.”
One of those is the Shiite shrine Sayyida Zainab, which Hassan said he has spent days on and off for months protecting from Sunni militants who want to destroy it to ignite an Iraq-style sectarian war. He said the fighting was heavy each day he was stationed at the shrine.
Hassan said that for him, the battle goes on “until the last breath.” It is a fight, he said, that cannot be lost to Hezbollah’s many enemies, including the U.S.
“I love the fighting. You are doing something you are convinced of. You are not being paid money to go. There is a difference.”
Sandels is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.
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