First in a series of dispatches from Lebanon.

Zahle–(Updates with link to Nasrallah speech) Hezbollah, the Lebanese party whose militia has grown into a regional military power, is the main scaffolding that holds up the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Hezbollah’s War: Flag over The Qalamoun Mountains

Just a few miles east of here, beyond the Bekaa Valley into Syria, Hezbollah is leading a charge against Islamist rebels, including al-Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front as well as the Islamic State, for control of a mountainous Qalamoun region at the frontier.

The Qalamoun mountains overlook passages from Beirut to Syria—a rebel supply route– but also the road between Damascus and Homs, both of which are in government control. It has been the scene of fighting off and on for two years.

Hezbollah’s role in efforts to take the mountains exemplifies the increasing dependence of the Syrian regime on the Lebanese group. Even state television acknowledged the role of “Lebanese resistance forces” in the conquest of some Qalamoun hills. No longer does Hezbollah TV propaganda automatically show Syrian troops raising flags over conquered territory. Rather, the Iwo Jima style videos show Hezbollah fighters raising their yellow party flag. Today, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah justified his militia’s participation in the Qalamoun campaign as a defense of Lebanon from extremists.

Tight Quarters between Syria and Lebanon

The increased, upfront participation of Hezbollah also shows that al-Assad’s forces have become overstretched while trying to fight battles in the north, west-central and far southern Syria. The expanded Hezbollah role also indicates the  importance both Hezbollah and Iran place in keeping al-Assad in power, even if it’s only in a rump state centered on Damascus and perhaps the northeast Mediterranean coast. Recently, government forces have lost towns and terrain in both northern and southern Syria.

The Tehran-to-south-Lebanon arms pipeline runs through Damascus. Without it, resupplying Hezbollah with weaponry would become a laborious chore by sea or rather iffy by land through northern Lebanese territory, much of which is controlled by Christian Lebanese hostile to the Shiite party’s periodic wars with Israel and allegiance to Iran. Al-Assad’s survival is key to maintaining Iran’s influence, via Hezbollah, in the Levant and at Israel’s northern door as part of Iran’s self-described “resistance front.”

In effect, al-Assad’s war has become Hezbollah’s war of survival.

Nasrallah speech on Qalamoun.

Iran’s strategy.

A detailed explanation of Hezbollah’s involvement.

And the Qalamoun battle according to Iranian TV.

 

 

 

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