BEIRUT — Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite political and militant group, has ramped up its support for the Syrian government, sending in military advisers to aid in the bloody struggle against the opposition, U.S. and Lebanese government officials say.
Hezbollah’s involvement is a clear indication that the uprising, now a year and a half old, is drawing in Syria’s neighbor and broadening a conflict that has the potential to destabilize the entire region. It also marks a worrying turn for the Syrian rebels, who already face one of the region’s most potent armies and now must contend as well with a disciplined and sophisticated militia.
A look at the Syrian uprising: Thousands of Syrians have died and President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, despite numerous calls by the international community for him to step down.
Interactive: Recent events in Syria
The U.S. government this month accused Hezbollah of providing aid to the Syrian government, an allegation the group has denied. Any acknowledgment that it is sending help to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad risks worsening tensions in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Lebanese Sunnis who support the mostly Sunni opposition in Syria.
But Lebanese officials say the support is becoming harder to hide and has markedly increased since a July 18 bomb attack in Damascus that killed four senior security officials, including Assef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law.
Lebanese officials and analysts say Hezbollah militants are now fighting — and dying — in the conflict, although U.S. officials have not confirmed the group’s combat role. The Lebanese officials cite as evidence quiet burials in Hezbollah-dominated areas of Lebanon, with the families of the “martyrs” warned not to discuss the circumstances of their sons’ deaths.
“Hezbollah has been active in supporting the Syrian regime with their own militia,” said a Lebanese government official allied with a political bloc opposed to Hezbollah who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity. “They’ve been quite involved in a combat role, quite involved in fighting.”
Hezbollah has a well-armed and trained militia that is considered the strongest fighting force in Lebanon. But the group also oversees a powerful political party and runs a number of organizations that provide social services to Shiite Muslims, its main supporters, throughout the country.
In some villages in south Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley in the eastern part of the country, young men loyal to Hezbollah are recruiting volunteers to fight in Syria, according to Lebanese officials. And a number of secret funerals for young men killed in Syria have been held in Shiite strongholds.
This month, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against Hasan Nasrallah and two other Hezbollah leaders in connection with the group’s activities in Syria. The department accused Hezbollah of “providing training, advice, and extensive logistical support to the Government of Syria.” Hezbollah has also helped the Syrian government push rebel forces from some areas in Syria, the Treasury Department said.
Hezbollah’s heightened role in the conflict comes at the same time that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps appears to be playing a bigger role in Syria. The Treasury Department said that the two groups are coordinating their military aid in Syria and that Hezbollah has helped the Revolutionary Guard train Syrian forces.