HERMEL, Lebanon — The strategic city of Qusayr in Syria has fallen to the Syrian Army, and the shock waves are still being felt in Lebanon, where increased fighting vividly indicates how Syria's 27-month-old civil war has destabilized the entire region.
Hezbollah sent fighters to Qusayr in a move that caused major controversy in Lebanon. And though the militant organization played an important role in defeating the Syrian rebels in Qusayr, it admitted how problematic the fighting had been over the past month.
"The Qusayr battle was very difficult," Hezbollah spokesperson Haj Ghassan told GlobalPost in the eastern Lebanese city of Hermel, just a few miles from Qusayr. "The rebels had built many tunnels and had a lot of reinforcements."
Hezbollah considers Qusayr to be a major victory against "Sunni Islamic extremists," the term the Shia group uses to describe the rebels fighting against Bashar al-Assad.
But for the first time they admitted the high cost of the win.
"It's almost complete destruction of Qusayr caused by both sides," said Ghassan. He admitted that whenever the Syrian army came under fire from rebels, they retaliated with tanks and heavy weapons. "The Syrian Army destroyed any place that shots came from. Now the Syrian government has to rebuild."
The city of Hermel has also suffered. Syrian rebels fired some 70 rockets into civilian neighborhoods in retaliation for Hezbollah's participation in the fighting, according to Ghassan.
Over the past few weeks, intense fighting also broke out in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, as pro- and anti-Assad factions fought one another with AK-47s, rocket propelled grenades and mortars. So far 37 have died and over 300 were wounded in Tripoli.
The Lebanese clashes stem from a deadly brew of poverty, historic political differences, geopolitics, and a jolt of deadly fighting in Syria. While all sides deny that they are motivated by religious animosity, the political fight has intensified divisions among three of Lebanon's religious groups: Sunni, Shia and Alawite.
At least several thousand Lebanese Sunnis are fighting with rebels in Syria, while an estimated 4,000 or more Hezbollah Shia fight in Syria alongside Bashar al Assad's troops, according to Elie El-Hindy, chair of the Political Science Department at Notre Dame University outside Beirut.
"It is becoming more and
more a religious-driven conflict," he told GlobalPost.
Hezbollah poured huge amounts of manpower and resources into the battle for Qusayr. Their fighters initially expected to take the city in a few days. But the battle took a month, largely because Hezbollah was fighting on unfamiliar turf while the Syrian rebels had a home-front advantage.
Nevertheless, the combined Syrian Army and Hezbollah irregulars overwhelmed the outgunned and politically divided rebels. Qusayr is a clear political as well as military victory for the pro-Assad forces. It bolsters their argument the fight against the rebels is part of a "resistance front" against outside forces.
Hezbollah argues that the Syrian fight is not a legitimate uprising against a dictator, but part of an effort by the US and Israel to dominate the region. The rebels are not Syrian but mostly ultra-conservative Salafist Muslims, it claims.
Issam Blaybel, the Hezbollah vice mayor of Hermel, cites three strategic reasons for his party's military intervention in Syria: fighting Sunni extremists; protecting Shia religious sites in Syria; and keeping open the supply lines from Iran needed to fight Israel.
The Syrian rebels, in league with the US and Israel, want to stop the alliance between the Shia crescent countries of "Iran, Iraq and Lebanon by hitting Syria," he said. If the uprising succeeds, he argued, "It would cut this connection to the resistance against Israel."
In short, Hezbollah leaders believe they are stopping Israeli allies in Syria so they don't have to fight them in Lebanon.
Bassem Shabb, a member of parliament from the anti-Hezbollah Future Party, said that sounds like the "George Bush doctrine. If we don't fight them in Qusayr, they're going to come over here."
Strategically, Qusayr "doesn't make much difference," said Professor El-Hindy. The retaking of the city may cut off some roads for smuggling Lebanese Sunni fighters into Syria, but other routes remain. "So far no party has made a breakthrough" in the overall fighting, he said.
El-Hindy said Hezbollah's intervention may weaken its political support in the long run. Hezbollah was widely admired for its