BEIRUT – Hezbollah was pulled more deeply into Syria’s civil war as 28 guerrillas from the Lebanese Shiite militant group were killed and dozens more wounded while fighting rebels, Syria activists said Monday.
The intense battle drove rebels from large parts of the town of Qusair, part of a withering government offensive aimed at securing a strategic land corridor from Damascus to the Mediterranean coast.
Hezbollah-affiliated hospitals in Lebanon urged blood donations through mosque loudspeakers and ambulances raced along the Damascus road in a stark indication of the group’s increasingly prominent role in Syria.
The overt Hezbollah involvement – several funerals for group members were held Monday in Lebanon – edges the war further into a regional sectarian conflict pitting the Middle East’s Iranian-backed Shiite axis against Sunnis.
It also raised tensions considerably in Lebanon, where Hezbollah has come under harsh criticism for its involvement in the civil war next door.
A staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hezbollah is heavily invested in the survival of the Damascus regime and is known to have sent fighters to aid government forces. The Iranian-backed group’s growing role in the conflict also points to the deeply sectarian nature of the war in Syria, in which a rebellion driven by the country’s Sunni majority seeks to overthrow a regime dominated by Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Clashes continued for the second day in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon, where Sunnis and Alawites battled in a direct spillover from the fighting in Qusair.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks Syria’s civil war, said more than 70 Hezbollah fighters have also been wounded in the fighting around Qusair.
The White House said President Barack Obama telephoned Lebanon’s president and expressed concern about Hezbollah’s “active and growing role in Syria, fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, which is counter to the Lebanese government’s policies.”
In addition to the Hezbollah involvement, Iraqi Shiite fighters have for months trickled into Syria. Their relatives say they are drawn by a sense of religious duty to protect Shiite Muslim shrines in Syria.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said in a recent speech that his fighters had a duty to protect the shrines. He also claims that supporters of the group were fighting in Shiite villages near the Lebanon border against the rebels, saying it was in self-defense.
The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, cited unidentified “sources close to the militant group” for its Hezbollah death toll Monday. It said at least 50 Syrian rebels also were killed in the battle for Qusair on Sunday.
Qusair has been the target of a Syrian government offensive in recent weeks, and the surrounding countryside has been engulfed in fighting as regime troops backed by Hezbollah fighters seized villages while closing in on Qusair itself.