- BY:NICHOLAS BLANFORD
- From:The Times
October 15, 2012 12:00AM
A rebel holds a rocket-propelled grenade launcher near the Syrian city of Haleb. Source: AFP
THE helicopter gunship, barely visible in the dawn haze, performed large circles above the Syrian border village of Jusiyah, seemingly confident it faced no threat from the rebel Free Syrian Army fighters below.
As the Mi-24 flew over the village again, a powerful blast among the buildings sent up a cloud of black smoke and a shockwave that thumped across the border with Lebanon and over the flat fields and orchards to the south.
“The helicopters are dropping barrels filled with TNT,” said Ismael, a Lebanese volunteer with the Jusiyah Martyrs Brigade, a unit in the FSA resting just across the Lebanese border. “We lost 10 of our men yesterday when one of those explosive barrels landed on a fighting position.”
Besides the regime’s helicopter and artillery barrages, FSA soldiers say they face a new and deadly opponent in the form of veterans from Lebanon’s militant shia Hezbollah.
Hussein, a former irrigation engineer who leads a unit in the Jusiyah Martyrs Brigade, said he had encountered some Hezbollah fighters beside the border.
He believed many were battle-hardened from the 2006 conflict with Israel: “None of them were under 35 years old. They were professional and tough fighters. You can tell they are superior fighters from the way they move in battle and how they fight.”
Allegations of Hezbollah involvement in Syria have intensified in the past fortnight. Fighters from the organisation are said to be deployed mainly in small villages populated by Lebanese shi’ite just inside Syria.
A mosque on the main road leading to the border here is under Hezbollah’s control. The building is festooned with yellow party flags and a giant portrait of Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah’s military commander who was assassinated in 2008. Next to it is an ambulance the local FSA militants says is used to ferry Hezbollah casualties from Syria.
“Hezbollah has no choice but to be there,” said a prominent member of a shia clan in Bekaa Valley. “The opposition has fighters from Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia helping them, so why shouldn’t the Assad regime receive the help of Hezbollah?”
Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said last week that the Assad regime had not asked for assistance, but there were more than two dozen villages and farms on the Syrian side of the border populated by about 30,000 Lebanese, many of whom were shi’ite and members of Hezbollah.
He said they had been coming under threat from “armed groups” and had chosen to defend themselves. Strategically, a lot is at stake around Jusiyah, as control over it allows militants to enter and exit Syria with relative ease.
But the intensified shelling and aerial bombardments of recent days have reduced the FSA’s control and left them desperately short of food and ammunition. Many have crossed back into Lebanon and into this northeast corner of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where mostly Sunni-populated farms provide a safe haven.
The Lebanese authorities turn a blind eye; militants are careful to leave their weapons behind before entering Lebanon and do not launch attacks against Syrian troops from Lebanese soil.
Ismael, a farmer, and his companions, a mix of Lebanese, Syrian and other Arab nationalities, are resting after bloody battles in Jusiyah. As the Martyrs Brigade tried to snatch a few hours’ sleep, mobile phones rang with news that more colleagues, friends or family were attempting to slip into Lebanon.
Bursts of machine-gun fire from a Syrian army position on the border a kilometre away punctured the night. Red dots of tracer flew through the darkness as Syrian soldiers attempted to intercept militants and refugees scrambling across the mountain slopes for the cover of the orchards in Masharei al-Qaa. By dawn, up to 700 had escaped Jusiyah.
A dozen women and small children sat wide-eyed with exhaustion on the floor of a small room, having walked in the darkness for 10 hours.
“It was a hard journey. We had to walk and then stop to avoid machine-gun fire,” said Abu Ahmad, a Lebanese militant who had accompanied his wife, two children and mother from Jusiyah. “I had to get them out. But my father refused to leave.”