Syrian Rebels Continue To Clash With Hezbollah-Backed Forces

Robert Siegel speaks with Anne Barnard, Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times, about clashes between Syrian rebels and government forces backed by Hezbollah fighters.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today was the fifth day in the battle for Qusair, a small Syrian city, population normally about 30,000, that lies close to the border with Lebanon. Forces supporting and opposing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad are fighting for Qusair because of its strategic location. According to the British-based pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 46 of the fighters killed in Qusair were members of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia. They support Assad.

New York Times Beirut bureau chief Anne Barnard joins us now. Welcome to the program.

ANNE BARNARD: Thank you.

SIEGEL: The Syrian opposition yesterday urged fighters across Syria to, and I'm quoting, "rush to the rescue" of the rebel stronghold of Qusair. Does that suggest the rebels are losing control of what had been their town?

BARNARD: Well, it's hard to ascertain exactly who's making progress and how much. But government forces, combined with Hezbollah, are outgunning the rebels. That said, the rebels have held out for longer than anyone expected.

SIEGEL: Hezbollah, which the U.S. regards as a terrorist organization, is a powerful force in Lebanon. It's a big political party there. And it's identified or has been identified over the years with opposing Israel across Lebanon's southern border. Does this engagement in Syria mark a new role for Hezbollah? And does it affect the way that the Lebanese regard Hezbollah?

BARNARD: Well, traditionally, Hezbollah has justified its bearing of arms, independent of the government, as part of resistance against Israel. Its followers consider Israel to be their primary foe. And now that they have gotten involved in this fight on the side of Assad, the leadership of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader, has said that the fight in Syria is essentially an extension of the fight against Israel.

SIEGEL: And do people in Lebanon seem to buy that, the idea that this is the same fight that Hezbollah has engaged in?

BARNARD: Well, on the one hand, you can't underestimate the loyalty of Hezbollah's core followers to Nasrallah. At the same time, we went to a funeral in a town in the Baqa'a Valley for a fighter who died in Syria, probably in Qusair. And the uncle of the fighter told us that he wished that all of this blood had been shed in southern Lebanon, which is, of course, where Hezbollah fought off a 15-year Israeli occupation.

And I think that people are trying to bring their minds around the idea that some of these fighters are coming from southern Lebanon, and they're going and fighting against fellow Arab Muslims and not against Israelis. It's a change that people have to make in their minds.

SIEGEL: You said the fact that the battle for Qusair has gone on now for five days suggests that the rebel forces are hanging on better than people might have expected. Do you find it surprising what's happening in Qusair?

BARNARD: Well, people here have been taken by surprise by the number of casualties reported from Hezbollah. People are worried now in Lebanon that Sunni factions here might try to attack Hezbollah where it's vulnerable, perhaps in its strongholds in the Dahyeh, which is the southern suburbs of Beirut. People are very tense and concerned that the fight may spill over in that way.

SIEGEL: That there could be a contained Lebanese civil conflict paralleling what's happening across the border in Syria, you're saying.

BARNARD: Yes, people have been worried about that since the conflict began. But I would say at this point they're more worried than they ever have been.

SIEGEL: Well, Anne Barnard, thank you very much for talking with us about it today.

BARNARD: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: Anne Barnard is the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times.

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