Last week five Lebanese soldiers were wounded when ISIL mortar rounds hit their post. On Friday the U.S. announced the delivery of 50 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles and 560 artillery rounds, some precision laser guided, to bolster the Lebanese army’s defense of the country’s eastern border.
Hezbollah’s focus of late has been on seizing the rebel-held town of Zabadani, in the southern Qalamoun area in Syria near the border with Lebanon. A cease-fire agreement reached last month has effectively ended the battle with surviving rebels and civilians permitted to depart. That leaves Hezbollah free to finish clearing the remaining pockets held by ISIL and other rebels in Qalamoun.
“We will go back to Qalamoun. We have no choice. We cannot leave them there,” says Abu Khalil, a thickly bearded, shaven-headed veteran Hezbollah fighter who has served more than 20 combat tours in Syria.
On Sunday the Lebanese army said it had killed several fighters when it heavily shelled their positions in remote valleys east of Arsal close to the border with Syria. Early Monday, Syrian helicopters staged a rare cross-border incursion into the same area.
Still, tackling ISIL in Qalamoun is a relatively minor endeavor compared with the scale of the Assad government’s offensive underway in northern Hama, the first conducted by the Syrian army in months.
The Russian intervention in Syria has been warmly greeted by Hezbollah and has provided a boost of confidence to the Assad government and its allies on the battlefield. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, said on Thursday, “We have crossed the phase of danger” in Syria that could lead to a settlement of the conflict.
“The Syrian cause will take a new turn, and it might be possible to put it on the track of a serious political solution, because the world has started to look at it realistically,” he told Iran’s Ahwaz TV.
Hezbollah fighters are participating in the offensive in northern Hama. Hassan Hussein al-Haj, a senior Hezbollah military commander, was reported killed on Saturday during a battle for the village of Mansoura in Hama province. Hezbollah’s seasoned combatants are fighting alongside Syrian troops and Iraqi and Afghan Shia paramilitaries, with air support from Russia, against rebels backed by Turkey and some Arab Gulf states. Also roaming the increasingly busy airspace above Syria are U.S., British and French aircraft as part of an anti-ISIL coalition.
“What we have now in Syria is truly a world war,” says Abu Khalil.