This image shows homes destroyed by government airstrikes and shelling,… (HOEP/AP )
BEIRUT — Thousands of Lebanese Hezbollah militants were massed around the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Sunday, according to rebels and a senior commander in the Lebanese Shiite movement, broadening Hezbollah’s backing of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and stoking fears of an imminent assault on the city.
The commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media, said there were about 2,000 Hezbollah fighters in Aleppo province, largely stationed in Shiite towns north of the city. The rebel Free Syrian Army said Hezbollah forces had gathered in a suburb of the city Sunday and appeared to be preparing for an attack.
Rebels have secured swaths of Aleppo — Syria’s commercial capital and most populous city — since fighting engulfed it last summer, but the two sides have been locked in a grinding stalemate for months. An assault on the city could stretch rebel forces, which have sent reinforcements from Aleppo to fight against Hezbollah and Syrian troops in the battle for the town of Qusair, near the Lebanese border.
The claims of a Hezbollah presence in Syria’s north follow a pledge by its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, to back Assad to victory and indicate that the movement could be used as a guerrilla force wherever required. A long-standing ally of Syria and Iran, its decision to knuckle into the fight raises the specter of a regional conflagration spilling over Syria’s borders, pitting Sunni against Shiite. Underscoring that point, Syrian rebels and Hezbollah fighters engaged Sunday in their first serious clashes on Lebanese soil.
“The Aleppo battle has started on a very small scale; we’ve only just entered the game,” said the Hezbollah commander in an interview in Beirut on Saturday while on leave from fighting in Qusair, where he oversees five units. “We are going to go after strongholds where they think they are safe. They are going to fall like dominoes.”
He said the militants were largely concentrated around the Shiite towns of Zahra and Nubol, which have been under siege from largely Sunni rebel forces. A spokesman for Hezbollah said he could not confirm or deny their presence.
Louay al-Mokdad, political and media coordinator for the Free Syrian Army, said Hezbollah militants had gathered at a military academy in Aleppo’s western district of Hamdaniyah on Sunday. He put the number of the Shiite movement’s soldiers in the area at 4,000, quoting rebel intelligence.
“We think they are going to engage inside Aleppo and the province,” he said.
In what appeared to preparation for that, pro-government forces began a push to secure supply lines to the city on Sunday, activists said. Aleppo-based activist Kareem Abeed said pro-government forces had advanced from the military academy in Hamdaniyah, with rebels repelling an attack in the Rashideen neighborhood.
The infiltration of Hezbollah fighters into Syria — along with the supply of weapons from Russia and Iran — has helped turn the tide in favor of Assad’s government, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Sunday.
“We are seeing, unfortunately, a battlefield situation where Bashar al-Assad now has the upper hand, and it’s tragic,” McCain, who slipped into Syria last week to meet with rebel fighters, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
McCain, who has repeatedly called for military action in Syria and who has been among the harshest critics of the Obama administration on the issue, recalled claims from U.S. officials dating back more than year ago that Assad’s fall was inevitable.
“I think we can’t make that statement today,” he said. “Hezbollah [has] now invaded. The Iranians are there. Russia is pouring weapons in. And anybody that believes that Bashar Assad is going to go to a conference in Geneva when he is prevailing on the battlefield — it’s just ludicrous to assume that.”
McCain was referring to an international conference planned for this month or possibly July to bring the warring sides together. The Syrian opposition has said it will not attend while Hezbollah’s siege of Qusair continues.
The siege showed no sign of abating Sunday, as Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem rejected a request from the United Nations to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to enter the town immediately and tend to an estimated 1,500 wounded trapped inside.
The Hezbollah commander boasted about gains in Qusair, saying that when he left the battlefield for leave a week ago, the movement controlled 70 percent of the city at the cost of 72 of its men. He said 3,000 Hezbollah fighters are in the town, among “no more than 10,000” in the whole of Syria.
However, Sami al-Rifaie, an activist based in Qusair, said rebels have made gains since reinforcements arrived, with Hezbollah and army control reduced to 20 percent of the city.