For over a week now, the Syrian town of Qusayr in Homs Province has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the two-year conflict. The struggle for Qusayr, says besieged President Bashar al-Assad, “is the main battle” in all of Syria. Lying adjacent to a highway linking Homs to the north and Damascus to the south, Qusayr is only a few miles from the Lebanese border and is thus a strategically vital node for both the regime and the rebels.
For the rebels, it’s part of a western supply route linked to Tripoli in northern Lebanon, where the rebels have enjoyed support since the uprising began in March 2011. For the Assad regime, Qusayr links Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon to the Alawite homeland on the Mediterranean coast, where Assad and his supporters will likely seek safe haven should they lose Damascus. In order to retake Qusayr from the rebels who have held it almost a year, the regime has ordered air strikes and called in reinforcements from Hezbollah as well as Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps forces.
Earlier reports suggested that Assad and allies had pushed the rebels out, but opposition activists say this is regime propaganda. "It's not true what the regime is claiming," said one Qusayr-based activist. "They're saying this to raise the morale of the fighters, because the rebels are giving them a beating." Indeed, Hezbollah itself seems to be absorbing heavy casualties, with 46 reportedly killed in Qusayr over the last week. Other sources claim that given the number of funerals in southern Lebanon and other Hezbollah-controlled regions over the last few days, the death toll may be closer to 100.
As Tony Badran, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes in NOWLebanon, “If the casualty rate stays this high even for another week, it could prove devastating.” Badran explains that many of those killed in the first day of fighting were ambushed during the initial assault and “cut down by landmines and IED’s prepared by the Syrian rebels.” The rebels, writes Badran, “received assistance from certain Palestinian factions in planning the defense of the town.” Unconfirmed reports suggest that those Palestinian factions may include Hamas. In other words, two militias trained and armed by Iran—one Sunni, one Shia—may now be shooting at each other, with the side that the Islamic Republic has invested in most heavily losing.
At this point, it’s perhaps most accurate to describe the war not in terms of the Sunni-majority opposition vs. Assad, but the rebels vs. a large Iranian-trained and supplied force, including Assad’s military, his paramilitary gangs, Hezbollah, IRGC units, the popular militias, as well as Iranian-backed organizations from Iraq, like Asaib ahl al-Haq and Kitaeb Hezbollah. As Elliott Abrams writes in this week's issue, the supreme leader "wants to win and he understands that whether he wins or loses is immensely important." Indeed, given the amount of resources Tehran has now poured into winning Syria, it’s no longer Assad’s regime, but Iran’s. If Assad was once Iran’s junior partner, he’s now simply an Iranian protégé, and not necessarily the most important one fighting in Syria. That would probably be Hezbollah, which is why Qusayr is a key battlefield. Even if Assad doesn’t survive, key remnants of the regime will, and therefore holding that corridor between the Alawite coastal region and Hezbollah-held areas of Lebanon is a vital Iranian interest. What matters to Iran is not Assad, but the territory.
Are we watching Hezbollah closely enough these days? Probably not. Given events in Syria and the Balkans, it appears that we’re in for a whole new set of problems to be presented by Iran’s favorite proxy.
Yesterday the Bulgarian government announced the results of its investigation into the July 18, 2012 bus bombing that killed 5 Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver in the city of Burgas. At least two members of what appears to have been a three-man team belong to Hezbollah. More specifically, explained Bulgaria’s interior minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, they were part of Hezbollah’s “military wing”—a peculiar turn of phrase that hints at the political implications of the Bulgarian investigation, which may have a major impact on European Union foreign policy as well as Hezbollah’s ability to operate on the continent. And yet the most serious repercussions may be felt inside Lebanon, where Hezbollah is already feeling the pressure.
Informed sources are confirming reports that there was a major explosion at a uranium enrichment plant at an Iranian nuclear facility in Fordow last week. However, the White House believes the reports are not credible and Iran denies that anything is amiss, but a variety of news items coming out of Israel and Iran point to the likelihood that something significant is happening in the region.
In a sharply worded letter to Chuck Hagel, President Obama's nominee to be the next secretary of defense, Senator David Vitter of Louisiana takes issue with Hagel's past statement that “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here…. I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator.” Hagel made that statement in a 2006 interview.
Last week THE WEEKLY STANDARD published my article, “Smugglers Galore: How Iran Arms its Proxies.” It seems that part of it may have found its way onto the reading list of Hezbollah general secretary Hassan Nasrallah.
NBC’s Middle East correspondent Richard Engel was released yesterday after being held for five days in Syria. When his kidnappers came to a rebel checkpoint, they were engaged in a firefight with a Free Syrian Army unit that allowed Engel and his colleagues to go free. NBC’s statement said he was taken by an “unknown group,” but Engel himself said he has a “very good idea” that the kidnappers are members of the shabbiha.
Twenty-nine years ago yesterday, December 12, 1983, Hezbollah and operatives of the Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite group Da’wa carried out a series of seven coordinated bombings in Kuwait, killing six people and wounding nearly ninety more. The targets included the American and French embassies, the Kuwait airport, the grounds of the Raytheon Corporation, a Kuwait National Petroleum Company oil rig, and a government-owned power station. An attack outside a post office was thwarted.
Yesterday, the Treasury Department designated Ali Musa Daqduq, “a senior Hizballah commander responsible for numerous attacks against Coalition Forces in Iraq, including planning an attack on the Karbala Joint Provincial Coordination Center (JPCC) on January 20, 2007, which resulted in the deaths of five U.S. soldiers.”
To many Lebanese, the massive car bomb attack in Beirut on Friday that killed the Sunni Muslim head of internal security Wissam al Hassan and seven others evoked the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri.