Hezbollah deaths highlight the group’s active role in north-west Syria

Nine members of the Iran-backed group were killed during Turkish strikes in Idlib on Friday

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Hezbollah on Sunday buried eight militants killed in a Turkish missile strike in Idlib province, in an attack that reflects the Iran-backed Lebanese group’s changing role in north-west Syria.

On Sunday, thousands of people gathered in Beirut’s southern suburbs to attend the burial of five of the men.

Some wore face masks to protect against coronavirus while the funeral crowds chanted, “Our party is Hezbollah and our leader is Nasrallah,” referring to the group’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, as the coffins were carried past.

Sounds of gunfire rang through the air as those attending climbed on to rooftops of surrounding buildings to look over the vast crowds.

Ali Al Zanjani, Mahmoud Hamid, Eissa Barji, Talal Hamza and Ahmed Mustafa were buried in a Hezbollah cemetery. Three other burials took place in other towns in Lebanon and a ninth militant was buried on Monday.

In the Garden of Lady Zaynab cemetery, mourners watched as men tipped terracotta-coloured earth over the freshly-buried fighters’ bodies. Some grabbed handfuls of the soil as mementoes. At the back of the graveyard, Mahmoud Adnan Hamid, 29, was buried on top of his brother Ali who was also killed fighting for Hezbollah in Syria in 2014.

Ali Al Zanjani, 30, was half-Lebanese, half-Iranian and had taught Arabic alongside his religious studies in Iran, according to two sources.

“Sometimes in class, he would tell us about stuff that wasn’t to do with the lesson – to shake things up a bit, so we didn’t get tired,” said a 20-year-old Iranian student taught by Al Zanjani for two years in the city of Qom. “He used to take us on trips outside the classroom – to parks and things, in Qom and Tehran. Now he’s been martyred, I feel like we lost a friend.”

The Lebanese militants were killed on Friday in a Turkish missile strike at Al Talhiya near Saraqib in Idlib province, sources said. They were alongside Afghans from the Iran-backed Fatemiyoun Brigade and Syrian army troops.

It was not clear how long the Hezbollah militants killed on Friday were there, but a friend of Hamid said the two were together in Beirut a fortnight ago.

The significant loss of fighters is a clear sign of Hezbollah’s involvement in military operations in north-west Syria, where they are fighting for the government of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad against Turkey and rebels backed by Ankara.

Friday’s attack resulted in the highest number of casualties Hezbollah has sustained in one engagement in years, probably since the group fought in central and eastern Syria in 2017.

The Lebanese group, which is designated a terrorist organisation by Gulf countries, the UK and US, has not played such a prominent role in recent years in Syria as it did between 2013 and 2016, but fighters and advisers have stayed beyond Lebanon’s borders.

It acknowledged its presence to Syria in 2013 when it led operations to recapture the strategic border town of Al Qusayr from rebels, but it probably sent advisers and trainers across the border much earlier, to bolster Mr Al Assad’s army after whole battalions defected.

Hezbollah’s posting in Syria proved controversial in Lebanon, with some supporters questioning why the group, which bills itself as a resistance to Israel, should be involved in a foreign war.

It sought to deflect such criticism by saying it was there to fight ISIS and terrorists.

The intervention has come at huge human and financial cost, with more than 1,000 fighters killed and hundreds more wounded in the past nine years.

But it also gave Hezbollah experience in fighting alongside a conventional army, and blooded a generation too young to have served in the month-long 2006 war with Israel.

Last year, as the government had retaken most of the country, Mr Nasrallah announced he was withdrawing fighters.

“There are no regions in Syria we have fully emptied out but there is no need for the numbers to stay the same,” he said.

The deaths last week show that the battle for Idlib province, launched by the Syrian government in December, may have changed that decision.

Hezbollah militants in Syria have moved to make the most of their superior capability, compared with most other pro-Assad ground forces.

They had been posted in rural Aleppo, one of two fronts on which the Assad alliance is advancing in north-western Syria.

Fighter numbers are unclear but the group is now also needed on the southern Idlib front.

On Saturday, Iran’s top military command in Syria released its first ever statement, confirming the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah had responded to a request from Syria to fight Turkish and rebel attacks around the M5 motorway.

The road runs from Syria’s southern border with Jordan to north of Aleppo near the Turkish border. The command said that four days earlier “terrorist factions” had launched a large attack on Syrian army points.

"We partnered with and supported the Syrian Army, at the request of the Syrian state, in opening the M5 highway with Syrian units lead by the Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah," it said.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said: “Hezbollah is taking a more active role in the Saraqib area, part of the southern Idlib front, which was largely manned by Syrian forces.”

This change is because the Syrian army is “utterly incapable” of dealing with rebels who have any kind of air support, Ms Tsurkov said.

“Hezbollah’s fighters are significantly better and are actually dedicated to their mission, as opposed to Syrian soldiers press-ganged into service,” she said.

Back in Beirut’s southern suburbs, friends and relatives of the five men buried yesterday claimed that Hezbollah had the right to cross borders, despite Lebanon’s official policy of dissociation from regional conflicts.

“There are no borders,” said Hussein, a cousin of Ali Al Zanjani. “Hezbollah doesn’t have borders. Of course, we have the right to go to Syria.”

Not everyone agrees. Hezbollah's role and that of other militant groups in the region is a major point of contention among other governments inside and outside the Middle East, who see them as militias beholden to an expansionist Iranian vision.

But as it manoeuvres in Idlib against Turkey, Hezbollah looks set to stay in Syria.

“There is no reason to suspect that Hezbollah intends to withdraw from Syria in any way,” Ms Tsurkov said.

“At the end of the day it would be an Iranian decision but the Iranian regime is not giving up on propping up Assad.”