Middle East
4:46 pm
Thu February 20, 2014

In Syria, Neighboring Militant Group Shifts Weight To Step In

Originally published on Thu February 20, 2014 6:02 pm

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. We begin this hour with Syria. Peace talks have stalled and with no clear path forward, all sides are, once again, digging in. A look at Lebanon's Hezbollah reveals how the region is primed for war. Its fighters are giving pivotal help to the Syrian regime. NPR's Alice Fordham is in Lebanon and reports on why a group founded on resisting Israeli occupation has embraced the war next door.

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ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: We're seeing big battles all over Syria just now. The army dropping bombs over the city of Aleppo, rebel forces pushing hard in the north and south, regional powers are expected to stay involved. Saudi Arabia sends weapons to rebels. Iran trains Syrian soldiers.

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FORDHAM: And this video is from the town of Yabrud. Yabrud is worth fighting for. It sites on a strategic mountain highway and a crucial factor is at work there. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group, is supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and taking the lead in this battle and promising anew to fight many more to come.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

FORDHAM: Seize your victory in Yabrud, goes this Lebanese song. Hezbollah, your men are at the ready. The song's gotten a lot of hits and approval on YouTube and just as much criticism from people wondering what a grassroots Lebanese group like Hezbollah getting drawn into Syria's sectarian war. To go back a little, Hezbollah was founded as an armed Shiite political movement in the early 1980s when Israeli forces occupied much of south Lebanon.

So began three decades of confrontations. Leader Hassan Nasrallah insists that Hezbollah still exists only to defend the oppressed Lebanese against Israel. But his group's operations have decisively shifted to Syria.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

FORDHAM: We broke the Jewish army and now it's your turn, Yabrud, goes the song. The Hezbollah leader squares this shift by maintaining that because Assad opposes Israel, it's a duty to fight for the Syrian president. But in Lebanon and beyond, skeptics point out that the Syrian and Iranian governments have always supported Hezbollah. They say that perhaps the time has come for the party to repay them by taking their side in this war. The Syrian opposition has been scathing.

LUISERTHI: Now, it's young men are coming to Syria to kill Syrians in the name of whatever. I mean, they are supporting the dictator against the oppressed, even though they have always told us that they are standing for the oppressed.

FORDHAM: Luiserthi(ph), an opposition politician. Even as it rejects those claims the party seems to be preparing for a long fight. At the weekend, Nasrallah said that the Syrian war is a decisive historic battle requiring time and patience.

To understand how Hezbollah has changed, we head south to a showpiece memorial and museum, called Mleeta. As they arrive, visitors are greeted with a stirring movie about great battles with Israeli forces. Outside, there is some curious sites. Visitors are surrounded by memorabilia from wars against Israel. The mountain on which this stands used to be a stronghold from which the militias hit Israeli positions. You can see them the hills all around. There's rusting rocket launchers and mannequins dressed as militants hiding among the trees.

Everything about the party is defined by its wars with Israel, but even our guide here says that with the war in Syria, the militants' mission has changed.

AHMED: We have to save and to protect our country. We are fighting for all Lebanese people, not only Shiah or for south.

FORDHAM: Ahmed(ph) says that if Hezbollah doesn't fight in Syria, extremist groups will come into Lebanon and that the Sunni militias fighting in Syria with their brutal form of Islamic law are scarier than the Israelis. Visitors to the museum echo his sentiments. Moray(ph) is here with her family.

MORAY: (Through interpreter) And if I see a thief come in to my neighbor's house, of course I'm going to go tell my neighbor. Of course, I'm going to go help them.

FORDHAM: Already, hundreds of Hezbollah fighters are thought to have died in Syria. As we head back, we see new graves on the hillsides, young men's faces are displayed above them. Their party's flags flutter overhead. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.