x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Hizbollah 'at war with the Syrian people'

New Syrian National Coalition president says Lebanese Shiite group is fighting for the Assad regime in Homs, and calls on the Arab League to intervene. Phil Sands reports

George Sabra, a Christian named yesterday as interim president of the Syrian National Coalition, accused Hizbollah of fighting on behalf of Bashar Al Assad in the town of Qusayr.
George Sabra, a Christian named yesterday as interim president of the Syrian National Coalition, accused Hizbollah of fighting on behalf of Bashar Al Assad in the town of Qusayr.

ISTANBUL // Hizbollah has declared war on the Syrian people, the newly appointed head of Syria's main opposition alliance said yesterday.

George Sabra, a Christian named yesterday as interim president of the Syrian National Coalition, accused the Lebanese Shiite militants of fighting on behalf of Bashar Al Assad in the town of Qusayr, in Homs province near the Lebanese border.

"What is happening in Homs is a declaration of war against the Syrian people and the Arab League should deal with it on this basis," Mr Sabra said.

"The Lebanese president and the Lebanese government should realise the danger that it poses to the lives of Syrians and the future relations between the two peoples and countries."

His remarks, the most serious condemnation of Hizbollah by the SNC, underscore a growing sectarian element to the war in Syria and the potential for the conflict to spread into Lebanon.

The Assad's regime is highly dependent on fanatical support from Alawites, a Shiite minority group. Hizbollah and the Iranian government, Mr Al Assad's key backers, are also Shiite.

Syria's opposition is increasingly dominated by Sunni militants with Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra playing a major role.

Heavy fighting has been raging in Qusayr for days, with rebels gaining control of parts of a military base and Hizbollah reported to have been using artillery in response.

Syrian rebel commanders said they were pushing hard to stop factions from Jabhat Al Nusra attacking Hizbollah targets inside Lebanon.

"This is a dangerous position, the war can spread, it is already spreading, into Lebanon at any moment and we cannot stop Islamist groups from going into Lebanon if Hizbollah has come into Syria," said one influential opposition figure.

Speaking at a ceremony mourning a Hizbollah fighter killed in Syria, the vice-president of the group's executive council, Sheikh Nabil Qauk, evoked the plight of Lebanese citizens living in a string of villages inside Syria.

"What Hizbollah is doing with regard to this issue is a national and moral duty in the defence of the Lebanese in border villages," he said.

Details also emerged yesteday of a massacre in the southern suburbs of Damascus with at least 69 people, and possibly hundreds more, killed by regime forces after they stormed into two neighbourhoods south-west of Damascus.

The Jdeydet area has been sealed off by government troops for days and, while activists have struggled to get information out, they say scores of people have been executed in house-to-house raids by regime troops and the feared pro-regime militia group, the shabbiheh.

Fragments of video footage recorded by activists in the area show bloodied corpses lined up in rows awaiting burial.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday it had confirmed 80 deaths, but believed the real number could be as high as 250. The Local Coordination Committees, a grassroots network of activists, said it had received reports from locals of 450 people killed.

The SNC gave an even higher number of 566.

Heavy restrictions on independent media, and a blanket prohibition on all independent human-rights groups from working openly in government-held parts of the country, make it impossible to verify the numbers.

"We are still trying to put together exactly what has happened, we have heard pieces of the whole and it is terrible, it's another major massacre, I think we're talking about hundreds of people murdered in cold blood," said a Syrian activist from Damascus.

Last year, the nearby suburb of Daraya was similarly besieged by government troops, who went house to house killing at least 674 people.

Jdeydet Artouz and Jdeydet Fadl, small towns that had once been considered fairly safe by refugees, lie to the south-west of Damascus on a strategically important main road into the capital. They are next to the Moadamiya/Daraya area, where rebels and regime forces have been locked in inconclusive combat for months.

Key military facilities are near Jdeydet. Large, squalid army housing complexes stand along main roads, and there are areas known to locals as "Alawite settlements" - homes built by the regime for the Alawite-dominated officer corps - in the vicinity.

Kawqab military base, from which regime forces have shelled large swaths of the Syrian capital's southern suburbs on a daily basis is just to the south of the area.

In recent weeks rebels had attacked checkpoints in the area. Had they been able to establish a strong presence in there, it would have threatened all of those sites, and could have helped the opposition reinforce and resupply Daraya - something it has been largely unable to do from the east, according to rebel military commanders.

"It's a small but important area in the bigger struggle for Damascus," said an opposition figure involved in efforts to take the capital. "The regime knows, and has done what it always does when it faces a threat - kill people indiscriminately in revenge."

Sana, Syria's state-run news agency, said government troops in Jdeydet had been conducting anti-terrorist operations, "inflicting heavy losses" on armed rebels.