RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
ISIS is one of many Sunni groups fighting against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, and Assad's been losing ground lately. One of his allies helping him fight back is Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group. Hezbollah took the unusual step recently of inviting reporters out to see the front lines on the border of Lebanon and Syria. NPR's Alice Fordham made the trip and reports on why the group is reaching out to explain its strategy.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The dirt roads on the border between Syria and Lebanon wind across a mountain range dotted with little wildflowers. It's windswept and deserted except for a few hilltop outposts with clumps of gray tents, machine gun nests and Hezbollah's flags flying. These posts are new. In a three-week offensive, Hezbollah has worked with other pro-Assad forces to push Syria's rebel fighters out of a chunk of territory they've held straddling this boarder for two years, intermittently shelling Lebanese villages. They say they're still firing at rebels who are less than a mile away.
And he said all of this from there to here was all Jabhat al Nusra, like, last week, they were still fighting for this.
Although Hezbollah has organized a press trip weaving into Syrian territory from Lebanon and made a commanding officer available for interviews in the field, the group won't allow us to record his voice. What he says is that Hezbollah faced a tough fight. The rebels were well-armed, their shell casings still litter the ground, and their morale was high. Across Syria, rebel fighters, many of them connected with the self-named Islamic State or with al-Qaida, have got stronger and taken a lot of territory from Assad. Probably Assad's most competent ally is Hezbollah. And their victory here is the best news Assad has had for weeks, which is maybe why the usually-insular group is inviting groups of journalists to the frontline more than any time in over a decade. Hezbollah analyst and author Nick Blanford thinks both Assad and Hezbollah needed to highlight a win.
NICK BLANFORD: I think it illustrates a need to get that message out to their supporters in Lebanon. Look, you know, this is not our Vietnam. We are winning this war. We are defending the borders of Lebanon. And more broadly, of course, for the Assad regime, it gives the message of a victory that not all is lost.
FORDHAM: But for all the triumphalism, this is just a small part of Syria. Blanford says there are not enough Hezbollah fighters to solve Assad's rebel problem.
BLANFORD: Hezbollah are good fighters, but it's really an issue of numbers.
FORDHAM: The group has intensive backing from Iran, as does Assad's army. But Blanford says the group only has about 5,000 active-duty fighters, and they can't prop up Assad's forces alone.
BLANFORD: If you're looking at the forces loyal to the Assad regime, chiefly the Syrian Army, it's utterly exhausted after four years of fighting.
FORDHAM: Their leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has vowed to protect Assad. That would satisfy the group's obligations to Syria and Iran. Up in the mountain, the men say the priority is to protect their homeland as they look down on Lebanese villages. And even here on the border, they're spread then. A formidable force maybe, but seemingly not one that can save Assad by itself. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut.
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