Hezbollah losses laid bare after victory in Syrian town
Seven kilometres separate the Lebanese village of al-Qassar from the strategic Syrian town of al-Kussair - which was captured by Syrian regime forces backed by Hezbollah fighters this week.
It is in al-Qassar that the high costs borne by the Lebanese Shiite movement for fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's troops are laid bare.
The wailing sirens of ambulances escorted by Hezbollah's Cherokee jeeps, alert al-Qassar residents that the Shiite group has suffered numerous casualties in recent battles against the mainly Sunni rebels in Syria's al-Kussair.
Hezbollah has sent some 3,000 of its elite fighters - who were reportedly trained by ally Iran - into Syria, a Hezbollah source said. Most of them were stationed in al-Kussair.
Hezbollah has stayed silent on its casualties in Syria. But sources close to the group told dpa that more than 100 fighters had been killed and as many as 200 were wounded.
The casualties increased in recent weeks, said the sources, and al-Kussair was finally captured by al-Assad's forces and Hezbollah on Wednesday.
"This battle was necessary to protect the Shiites living in a cluster of villages around al-Kussair, from the takfiri (militant) groups who have occupied the area since 2011," said Hajj Abu Ali, a local Hezbollah official.
Abu Ali was referring to al-Nusra Front, a jihadist outfit fighting to topple al-Assad. Al-Nusra has been listed by the United States as a terrorist group.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah initially maintained that his group's involvement in Syria was meant to protect some 20,000 Lebanese Shiites living near al-Kussair, which is 20 kilometres from Lebanon, as well as Shiite shrines in Syria.
Later, Nasrallah framed his argument in the larger context of "defending resistance" and protecting Syria from "Israeli-US plots."
Syria, Iran and Hezbollah are avowed foes of Israel.
Nasrallah's defence has convinced many Hezbollah followers, including relatives of the Lebanese victims caught in Syria's 26-month-old war.
Abdallah Awad's daughter was killed in May when rebels inside Syria allegedly shelled a Hezbollah stronghold in the eastern Lebanese region of Hermel.
"Although I lost my daughter as a result of Hezbollah's engagement in Syria, I think Nasrallah was right in his decision," Awad, 58, told dpa.
"It is painful to lose your child, but the cause Hezbollah is now fighting for is sacred and it is to protect us in the future."
Awad said his 14-year-old daughter, Lolo, was on the roof when a shell slammed into their home. She suffered a fatal head wound.
Like Awad, Khadija Nassereddine fervently backs Nasrallah. She was wounded in a rocket attack on her home that was fired from Syrian territory.
"We will sacrifice our lives for Sayyed Nasrallah and Hezbollah," she said, a day after she returned home from hospital.
But there are other Shiites who resent Hezbollah's growing role in the Syrian conflict.
Sheikh Sobhi Tofaili, a former Hezbollah secretary general, said the takeover of al-Kussair is not a victory for the Shiites.
"Hezbollah fighters who kill children, terrorize the people and destroy houses in Syria will not be martyrs and will end up in hell," Tofaili said in a recent interview with the opposition Lebanese Future television.
Hezbollah's fight alongside al-Assad's troops has also infuriated Syria's Sunnis, including those who have taken refuge in Lebanon.
"When Israel launched its 33-day war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, we opened our houses for them (Shiites). Now, they are sending their fighters to kill us and destroy our houses," Amira, a Sunni refugee from al-Kussair, told dpa.
Amira added: "Nasrallah has probably won this round. But our revolutionaries will continue to fight and fill his strongholds with pictures of his dead followers."