(Reuters) – In the photograph the two robed men stand shoulder-to-shoulder, one tall and erect, the other more heavyset. Both smile for the camera. The picture from Tehran is a rare record of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meeting Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite paramilitary group.
Taken in April during a discreet visit by the Hezbollah chief to his financial and ideological masters, the photograph captured a turning point in Syria’s civil war and the broader struggle between Sunnis and Shi’ites, the two main branches of Islam. It was the moment when Iranmade public its desire for Hezbollah to join the battle to help save Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, diplomats said. At the time, Assad and his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, were losing ground to an advancing Sunni insurgency.
Within days of returning home, Nasrallah gave a televised speech making it clear that Hezbollah would fight alongside Assad to prevent Syria falling “into the hands” of Sunni jihadi radicals, the United States and Israel. The very survival of the Shi’ites was at stake, he said.
Soon afterwards, fighters from Hezbollah – which until then had largely stayed out of its neighbour’s civil war – entered Syria. In June they helped Assad’s forces recapture the strategic town of Qusair and other territory, turning the war in Assad’s favour.
Regional security officials told Reuters there are now between 2,000 and 4,000 Hezbollah fighters, experts and reservists in Syria. One Lebanese security official said a central command in Iran led by the Revolutionary Guards directs Hezbollah operations in Syria in close coordination with the Syrian authorities. Another source said Hezbollah had “hit squads” of highly trained fighters in Syria whose task is to assassinate military leaders among the Sunni rebels.
Hezbollah declined to comment for this report on its involvement in Syria. Nasrallah has previously said it is necessary for Hezbollah to fight Sunni radicals allied to al Qaeda.
Officials in Iran did not respond to requests for comment. Last week, Iran’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Marzieh Afkham, said that Iran had no official military presence in Syria, but was providing humanitarian assistance. Last September, Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of the Revolutionary Guards, said some members of Iran’s elite Quds force were in Syria but that it did not constitute “a military presence.”
Hezbollah’s role in Syria has ramifications not just in its home in Lebanon but across the region. If Assad wins, Iran’s influence along the shores of the Mediterranean will grow. If he loses, Hezbollah and Iran’s reach will likely be damaged. For some members of the group, the fight is an existential one.
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