BEIRUT — The leader of the militant group Hezbollah on Saturday aligned his powerful movement squarely behind the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and vowed victory against Syrian rebels, whom he assailed as proxy warriors for the West and Israel.
The televised comments by Hassan Nasrallah were the most definitive to date rallying Hezbollah to the defense of Assad’s government, which has been trying to put down a revolt by rebels supported by the United States and its allies.
The comments came as Syrian government forces, assisted by Hezbollah militiamen, intensified their assault on the strategic Syrian town of Qusair, near the Lebanese border. Both sides reported fierce fighting in Qusair six days after Syrian forces and their Hezbollah allies launched an attack on the longtime rebel stronghold.
“Syria is the backbone of the resistance, and the resistance cannot stand with folded hands while its backbone is being broken,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech, referring to Hezbollah’s signature “resistance” to the state of Israel.
“The battle is ours,” Nasrallah added, “and I promise you victory.”
The rousing speech puts to rest any doubts that Hezbollah has thrown its weight fully behind Assad and deems the uprising against his rule as an existential threat.
Hezbollah, designated as a terrorist group by the United States, is a dominant political and military force in Lebanon, which shares a lengthy border and close historical and cultural ties with Syria. The group has long been an ally of Assad and of Iran, Assad’s patron. But Nasrallah’s latest comments raised questions about just how far Hezbollah is willing to commit its resources to defend Assad’s government.
Hezbollah’s engagement in Syria had widely been viewed as a limited one. The Shiite Muslim group has acknowledged deploying forces in and around Qusair, an area with a substantial Shiite minority and extensive kinship ties to Lebanon. Dozens of Hezbollah fighters are reported to have been killed in the Qusair battle.
Hezbollah forces are also said to be assisting in the defense of Shiite shrines in Syria, where mostly Sunni Muslim insurgents are fighting to oust Assad’s government. Some Sunni extremists in Syria have vowed to destroy Shiite sacred sites. In all, U.S. officials have said that several thousand Hezbollah militiamen were in Syria fighting for Assad.
But Nasrallah’s comments Saturday would seem to open up the possibility of an even wider Hezbollah involvement. Nasrallah repeatedly linked Hezbollah’s alliance with Assad to the group’s hostility toward Israel. Assad’s overthrow would spur a new Israeli onslaught against Lebanon, the Hezbollah chief declared.
“If Syria falls then the resistance will be surrounded and Israel will enter Lebanon and impose its conditions upon the Lebanese,” Nasrallah said in his speech, which marked a national holiday, Liberation Day, the 13th anniversary of the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah emerged in the early 1980s from the tumult of the Lebanese civil war and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Israel and Hezbollah fought an inconclusive monthlong war in 2006.
Hezbollah publicly rationalizes the existence of its military arm and huge missile arsenal as a deterrent against renewed attack from neighboring Israel, whose warplanes frequently fly into Lebanese airspace on apparent reconnaissance missions.
In his speech, Nasrallah repeatedly referred to the Syrian rebels as takfiri radicals, a pejorative reference to Sunni extremists, who view Shiites as infidels. The presence of Al Qaeda-linked Sunni militants in the Syrian rebel ranks — including many non-Syrians — has provided fodder for Assad and his allies to frame the Syrian conflict as a battle against fanatics who pose a threat to Syrian minorities, including Christians and Shiites.
“If the takfiri groups are able to control the border areas of Lebanon, they will form a danger to the Muslims and the Christians,” Nasrallah said.
In the view of the Syrian opposition, it is Assad who has fomented sectarian strife and his troops who have committed massacres in Sunni towns and villages. Assad and many of his security chiefs are members of the Alawite sect, considered an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Hezbollah has denied having a sectarian agenda and has reached out to Christians and other sects in Lebanon to form alliances.
On Saturday, Nasrallah said Hezbollah had dispatched forces to assist Sunni Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina after the breakup of Yugoslavia. But its critics say Hezbollah remains a deeply sectarian organization that follows orders from Shiite Iran, Hezbollah’s longtime benefactor.
Hezbollah’s apparently expanding involvement in Syria has caused deep disquiet in Lebanon, where an uneasy peace has endured since the sectarian-fueled civil war ended in 1990. The battle for Qusair has sparked running gun battles between pro- and anti-Assad factions in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, costing more than two dozen lives in the last week.
Many Sunni groups in Lebanon support the Syrian rebels and view Hezbollah’s intervention on behalf of Assad as a sectarian affront. Mirroring Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, many Sunni men from Lebanon have crossed the border and taken up arms against Assad’s government. The front lines in Qusair may well pit Lebanese Shiites from Hezbollah against Lebanese Sunnis.
On Friday, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, a Christian, warned the political factions not to plunge the nation into sectarian discord. The remarks reflected a widespread fear that the war next door in Syria was having an evermore destabilizing effect on Lebanon.
Special correspondent Bulos reported from Amman, Jordan.