Hezbollah’s involvement could signal a tougher fight ahead for the Syrian rebels. Hezbollah fighters, expert in guerrilla warfare, fought the Israeli military to a standstill in 2006 and could provide a useful complement to the Syrian military, which has experience in conventional warfare, perhaps providing insight into the rebels’ operations.
Hezbollah officials have denied any role in the conflict in recent months. A Hezbollah spokesman reached by phone in Beirut on Friday declined to comment on allegations that the group is involved in the Syria conflict.
Lebanese government officials say Hezbollah has become deeply involved and is trying to keep its activities under wraps. Dozens of Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria, according to a Lebanese government official who is a member of the political bloc opposed to Hezbollah.
The fighters who are killed in Syria do not receive the large public funerals that Hezbollah usually organizes for militants killed in clashes with the Israeli military. Instead, the “martyrs” are buried discreetly and families are urged not to talk about the circumstances of the death, three government officials said. All three of the officials are members of the political bloc opposed to Hezbollah.
A number of families have complained bitterly to Hezbollah about the deaths of their relatives and their secretive burial, one of these officials said. There is a debate within the Lebanese Shiite community about the Syrian conflict, even among Hezbollah supporters, and some say that the fight in Syria does not have the same prestige as the fight against the Israelis.
Obituaries for Hezbollah fighters have also started appearing in local newspapers such as al-Safir, one of these officials said, without the circumstances of the death being explained.
There has been one notable exception to these discreet burials, according to Lokman Slim, a political activist who runs Hayya Bina, a civic initiative that aims to make Lebanese politics less sectarian, and is a frequent critic of Hezbollah.
In early August, a senior Hezbollah military commander named Musa Ali Shehimi was killed in Syria, according to Slim, and a large funeral was held for him in Lebanon without specifying where or how he was killed. But the bodies of a handful of Hezbollah militants who were killed at the same time as Shehimi were returned to the families at different times, Slim says, in order to avoid unnecessary attention.
A news site that appears to be run by Hezbollah supporters, al-Intiqad, ran an item about Shehimi’s funeral on Aug. 10 along with an alleged picture of the funeral. A handful of Hezbollah commandos are shown carrying a coffin draped in the Hezbollah flag in the photo with hundreds of people packed in the street behind them. The article notes that Shehimi “died while performing his jihadi duty” without giving any further details.
The funeral was attended by Hezbollah parliamentarians Ali Fayyad and Ali Ammar, the article said, and Shehimi was buried in the “Garden of Martyrs” cemetery in Beirut, the same location where the group’s top military commander, Imad Mughniyah, who was assassinated mysteriously in Damascus in 2008, is reportedly buried.
“Only this Shehimi was given a measure of a public funeral,” Slim said. “There’s a whole machine of how they’re administering these deaths.”
Hezbollah is also helping the Syrian government with its news and propaganda, Slim said. Communication specialists from Hezbollah’s TV station al-Manar are helping Syria’s official channel al-Ikhbariya present slick news packages with the government’s viewpoint.
More worrying for some Lebanese are reports that Hezbollah is targeting Syrian opposition members near the border areas inside Lebanese territory. These reports could inflame sectarian tensions with Lebanese Sunnis.
A clash between Syrian rebels and Hezbollah fighters inside Lebanese territory at the beginning of the summer left two Hezbollah fighters dead, according to a Lebanese former senior security official.
But Hezbollah is trying to keep the peace at home, many observers say. The group has little interest in spreading sectarian strife inside Lebanon or destabilizing the government in which they play a key role.
“Hezbollah doesn’t want to pick a fight inside Lebanon,” said Paul Salem, the head of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
Greg Miller in Washington and Suzan Haidamous in Beirut contributed to this report.