Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas have fought their biggest battle yet for Syria’s beleaguered president, prompting international alarm that the civil war may spread and an urgent call for restraint from the US.
About 30 Hezbollah fighters were killed on Sunday, Syrian activists said, along with 20 Syrian troops and militiamen loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the fiercest fighting this year in the rebel stronghold of Qusair, near the Lebanon border.
That would be the highest daily loss for the Iranian-backed movement in Syria, highlighting how it is increasing its efforts to bolster al-Assad.
It prompted US President Barack Obama to voice his concern to Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.
If confirmed, the Hezbollah losses reflect how Syria is becoming a proxy conflict between Shiite Iran and Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which back al-Assad’s mostly Sunni enemies.
Dozens of dead in sectarian bombings in Iraq on Monday and killings in the Lebanese city of Tripoli compounded a sense of spreading regional confrontation.
Western powers and Russia back opposing sides in the cross-border Syrian free-for-all, which is also sucking in Israel — though Washington and its allies have fought shy of intervening militarily behind fractured and partly Islamist rebel forces.
The White House said Obama spoke to Suleiman and “stressed his 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.”
However, the Beirut government has limited means to influence the politically and militarily powerful Shiite group.
The two leaders agreed “all parties should respect Lebanon’s policy of disassociation from the conflict in Syria and avoid actions that will involve the Lebanese people in the conflict.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country was “preparing for every scenario” in Syria and held out the prospect of more Israeli strikes on Syria to stop Hezbollah and other opponents of Israel obtaining advanced weapons.
Israel has not confirmed or denied reports by Western and Israeli intelligence sources that three raids this year targeted Iranian missiles near Damascus that it believed were awaiting delivery to Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006.
Israeli soldiers patrolling the disputed Golan Heights along the border with Syria fired back after coming under fire overnight, an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) statement said yesterday.
“Overnight, shots were fired at an IDF patrol on the border in the central Golan Heights, damaging a military vehicle,” a statement on the army’s Web site said.
No one had been wounded, it added.
“In response, IDF forces returned precise fire at the source of the gunfire. They reported a direct hit,” the statement added.
“The IDF views the recent incidents in the north with concern and has lodged a complaint with UNDOF,” the UN Disengagement Force responsible for patrolling that area.
Early on Monday, the army reported that small-arms fire from Syria hit the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights overnight, causing no harm or damage. The army also filed a complaint with the UN force on that occasion.
The Golan Heights have been tense since the beginning of the conflict in Syria more than two years ago.
However, there have been only minor flare-ups in the region to date, with Syrian shells crashing in the occupied Golan and Israel firing in retaliation.
In recent weeks, there were four incidents of fire coming from Syria and straying across the ceasefire line.
Last week, projectiles from Syria hit Mount Hermon, causing the popular site on the Israeli-occupied Golan to close down to visitors.
Israel, which is technically at war with Syria, seized 1,200km2 of the strategic Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War, which it later annexed, a move never recognized by the international community.
Syrian opposition sources and state media gave differing accounts of Sunday’s clashes in Qusair, long used by rebels as a supply route from Lebanon to the provincial capital Homs.
Hezbollah has not commented, but in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley on Monday several funeral processions could be seen. Pictures of dead fighters were plastered on to cars and mourners waved yellow Hezbollah flags.
Several ambulances were seen on the main Bekaa Valley highway and residents said hospitals had appealed for blood to treat the wounded brought back to Lebanon.
The air and tank assault on the strategic town of 30,000 people appeared to be part of a campaign by al-Assad’s forces to consolidate their grip on Damascus and secure links between the capital and government strongholds in the Alawite coastal heartland via the contested central city of Homs.
The government campaign has coincided with efforts by the US and Russia, despite their differences on Syria, to organize peace talks to end a conflict now in its third year and in which more than 80,000 people have been killed.
A total of 100 combatants from both sides were killed in Sunday’s offensive, according to opposition sources.