Hizb’Allah continues to suffer losses in their battle with al-Qaeda and Free Syrian Army on the border town of al Qusasyr. They have sent their elite soldiers in with artillery and armor support from the Syrian Army. The town still has not fallen and rebel reinforcements have arrived.
A source close to Hezbollah confirmed to A.F.P. on Thursday that more than 75 Hezbollah fighters were killed in Syria while fighting alongside the Syrian regime forces with armed opposition groups.
The same source reported that 57 Hezbollah fighters were killed in the battles, noting that the other 18 succumbed to their wounds after being involved in clashes taking place mainly in the border region of al-Qusayr.
The Syrian rebels and al-Qaeda probably have suffered higher losses, but they have a higher pool of people to work with. Hizb’Allah funerals are now becoming a common occurrence in their strongholds.
Hezbollah is throwing its men into battle in the Syrian city of Qusayr, and many are returning to Lebanon in coffins. Through their funerals and commemorations posted on pro-Hezbollah Facebook pages, we are now getting a sense of the casualties that the self-proclaimed “Party of God” is suffering as it joins the Syrian conflict on the side of President Bashar al-Assad.
It’s no secret why Qusayr is a vital piece of real estate for both the Syrian regime and the Lebanese paramilitary group. The city is a strategic link in the Syrian communications chain, connecting the capital of Damascus, Syria’s Alawite-dominated coastal highlands, and Hezbollah’s heartland in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. The Lebanese border is only a few miles to the city’s west, and the Damascus-Aleppo highway lies to its east.
Despite Hezbollah’s obscuring of facts surrounding their dead, it is clear their supporters know these men met their end in Syria. Chants of “Labayka ya Zaynab” (“We are here for you, O Zaynab”) are ubiquitous at funerals for Hezbollah’s martyrs. The highly sectarian and mantra-like chant references the Zaynab mosque in Damascus, an important Shia shrine near Damascus and a gathering point for pro-Iranian foreign fighters in Syria.
Qusayr isn’t Hezbollah’s first battle in Syria — for months, its militiamen have also taken part in fighting around the Zaynab shrine. While in Damascus, Hezbollah members tend to operate under the moniker of a group called Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA). The group is comprised of fighters from throughout the Shia world, the vast majority coming from Iranian proxy parties in Iraq and from Hezbollah. The group takes its name from a legendary Shiite fighter who was martyred during the Battle of Karbala, a central event in Shiism. Hezbollah’s dead are often also claimed by LAFA on their wide network of Facebook pages.
Another narrative, primarily one emerging from pro-rebel sources, was that Hezbollah was mainly losing young men. This too appears to be incorrect: While ages of those killed are very rarely posted by any Hezbollah-affiliated source, a number of older members have been killed in Syria. Ahmed Kamal Khurees, a Hezbollah fighter from the southern Lebanese town of Khiam, sports a white beard in his martyrdom photo. Fadi Muhammed Jazar, a Hezbollah member — and possible commander — who served time in Israeli prisons and was released during a 2004 Hezbollah-Israel prisoner exchange, was no youngster. Ibrahim Husayn, reportedly a Hezbollah commander, was also an older fighter. The presence of veteran fighters in Syria underlines the importance of this campaign for Hezbollah.
The conflict also shatters the myth of Hizb’Allah’s alleged “victory” over Israel in 2006. The organization lost 500-600 fighters against a half hearted Israeli campaign. Now it appears that the losses suffered at the hands of Israel has robbed it of experience veterans and as a result, they are struggling in the Qusasyr campaign.
It’s been five days since Hezbollah and Assad regime forces launched their joint offensive on the town of al-Qusayr in the Homs countryside. Hezbollah and regime media were quick to claim major advances, confidently predicting that the town would fall swiftly. These pronouncements have proven premature.
The attack on al-Qusayr has been long in the making. Assad’s forces, limited in manpower, are now acting more in concert with irregular sectarian militias trained by Iran. But the string of tactical gains in the Homs countryside, starting in April and leading to the current battle in al-Qusayr, is tied directly to Hezbollah’s lead role in spearheading ground operations.
As it became clear that the Syrian opposition was putting up fierce resistance, Hezbollah began adjusting its story about the battle for al-Qusayr. The group was now making it known that it was sending in reinforcements from its elite units, and that the fighting might last at least another week. More troublesome for Hezbollah, however, was the news about the severe losses its units were sustaining, with casualty numbers ranging from 30 to 40 dead after the first day of fighting alone. By Tuesday, Syrian activists in al-Qusayr were claiming another 25 dead Hezbollah fighters. This, of course, is not counting those who had been killed prior to the latest assault, going back to last year. The number and make-up of the casualties raise some interesting questions about Hezbollah’s fighting force post-2006.
As more of the group’s elite units are called up from Lebanon to reinforce their comrades in Syria, Iran has to be concerned about more than just seeing its strategic weapons caches blown up by Israel. It also has to be worried about how Hezbollah’s vulnerabilities are being exposed not by the IDF, but by Syrian rebels that the Party of God was supposed to dispatch easily. If the Iranians have overestimated Hezbollah’s capabilities against an adversary like the Free Syrian Army, one wonders what else about their power they’ve misjudged.
The Israelis you can bet are watching Hizb’Allah’s performance in Syria and now they will face a weakened opponent in a rematch.