World and Nation

In Syrian victory, Hezbollah risks a broader fight

BEIRUT — In the final days the outgunned Syrian rebels, deprived of reinforcements, ammunition and sleep, were surviving on olives and canned beans. They were hiding in the concrete shells of destroyed houses and underground tunnels near the besieged rebel stronghold of Qusair, unable to help their trapped colleagues and civilians dying of treatable wounds, as Syrian government forces and their Hezbollah allies from Lebanon assaulted the town by land and air.

By Wednesday morning, it was time to flee for the rebel fighters in Qusair, who had managed to repel the Syrian army for months but could not withstand the additional attacks from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite Muslim organization whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has made common cause with President Bashar Assad of Syria in the two-year-old civil war.

In triumphal tones, the Syrian news media announced that Qusair had been seized, as rebels said they had withdrawn from most of the city but vowed to fight on. Syrian state media broadcast photographs of soldiers raising flags over wrecked buildings as the rebels fled, and the Syrian military was calling the victory a turning point.

But Assad was victorious not because his military alone had defeated the rebels. Rather, he appeared to owe the victory to Hezbollah, which provided the crucial infantry power in recent weeks. Hezbollah’s role and the vengeful reactions of its critics have further intensified sectarian divisions in Syria and beyond its borders, creating new risks for both Assad and Nasrallah even in their moment of victory.

“We will not forget what Hassan Nasrallah did,” said Abu Zaid, 40, a fighter from Qusair. “We will take revenge from him and his organization even after 100 years.”

While taking Qusair could infuse Assad’s forces with momentum and embolden him to push for more military advances — just as Russia and the United States are pressing the antagonists in the Syrian conflict to negotiate — the intervention by Hezbollah could reverberate for that organization, which historically has been revered in Syria for its opposition to Israel. Now, in the eyes of the Syrian insurgency and its sympathizers, Hezbollah has turned its guns on fellow Muslims and taken on the form of an occupying force.

Before and after the insurgency’s defeat in Qusair, rebels and civilian opponents of Assad vented rage not only at him but also at his allies — particularly Iran and the well-trained Shiite Muslim fighters of Hezbollah, whom they largely blamed for the casualties they had suffered.

Many expressed bitterness toward Nasrallah, who had exhorted his followers to come to Assad’s aid against what Nasrallah portrayed as a jihadist-Israeli conspiracy to topple Assad and subvert Hezbollah’s ability to attack, or defend against, Israel.

Syrian Sunnis who live in the Qusair area, near the border with Lebanon, said they felt betrayed by Hezbollah, which they had once exalted because it had helped end Israel’s long occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.