The trauma suffered by Nubul and al-Zahraa residents is becoming a rallying cry for pro-Hezbollah Lebanese. [Note: This article was originally published by The Jamestown Foundation.]
The question of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War has become more intense following the recent capture of the strategic Syrian border city of al-Qusayr in the Homs governorate, by Syrian military and Hezbollah forces. After al-Qusayr fell, mass media reports emerged that Hezbollah is set to deploy, or has already deployed, 2,000-4,000 fighters to the north-western Syrian governorate of Aleppo — at the Aleppo Military Academy of Military Engineering, and in the enclave of the large, Shiite Syrian villages of Nubul and al-Zahraa — northeast of the contested city of Aleppo.
Nubul and al-Zahraa are situated northwest of Aleppo on the major highway 214, which runs to the Syrian-Turkish border. The highway approaches important Sunni-majority villages that act as armed opposition staging points, running from southern Turkey into northern Syria in the vicinity of Aleppo. Of special importance is the large village of Azaz, northeast of Nubul and al-Zahraa and due north of Aleppo, that was seized by the armed opposition in July 2012. It has been a target of several Syrian military airstrikes and is central to a current military operation against the opposition in the area north of Aleppo. Nubul and al-Zahraa are also reported to be the staging point for Syrian military and Hezbollah operations seeking control of the important Minagh Military Airport, in the vicinity of Azaz.
Pro-Assad Enclaves Nubul and al-Zahraa
Nubul and al-Zahraa have been receiving significant attention from Hezbollah, which has supported Lebanese and pro-Assad Syrians since late 2012. Nubul and al-Zahraa, with a combined population of approximately 70,000-100,000 people, are located in a contested area near the Turkish-Syrian border between the Kurdish-majority northwestern Afrin sub-region, near several armed-opposition controlled areas and staging points from Turkey into Syria. Tension between the residents of pro- and anti-opposition villages in the area has led to communal recriminations and conflict.
The Syrian armed opposition has consistently accused Hezbollah of participating in Syrian military operations staged from Nubul and al-Zahraa. Colonel Nour Hassoun, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander in the south-central city of Homs, asserted that Hezbollah fighters have been moving into the vicinity of Aleppo and Idlib, where they would be used as “infiltration” units to directly attack armed opposition positions already under artillery and aircraft attack by the Syrian military. The villages of Nubul and al-Zahraa, in particular, have been accused of being staging points for anti-opposition operations. Syrian armed opposition groups have asserted via a YouTube video that they have been battling Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard fighters in Nubul and al-Zahraa, and Syrian military units and shabiha (ghosts) paramilitary militias based in the villages.
Iraqi Shiite fighters of the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, who normally operate in the southern Damascus suburb of Sayyida Zeinab, are also reported by the opposition to be fighting with Hezbollah and the Syrian military in the area around Aleppo. However, pro-government Popular Committee militias in Nubul and al-Zahraa deny Hezbollah’s involvement in the fighting and state that the rumor of the movement’s participation in the battle is “disinformation” put out by the armed opposition.
The powerful Syrian armed opposition group, Liwa al-Tawhid (Oneness of God Brigade), recently released a video that it states was taken by one of its fighters who infiltrated a recruiting session of shabiha militia in Nubul and al-Zahraa, with senior Syrian military commanders and the governor of the Aleppo Governorate. The assembled people in the video can be observed chanting Shiite sectarian slogans, and are offered significant financial rewards in exchange for a “cleansing operation” in the area, and forgiveness for prior avoidance of mandatory military service.
The video, with Liwa al-Tawhid’s logo prominently displayed, was embedded on Al-Arabiya’s website. The assembled crowd in the video chanted “We follow you, oh Hussein,” and Hezbollah slogans popularized by the movement’s media during the July War of 2006 against Israel. In response to the crowd, their Syrian military recruiter, referred to by Al-Arabiya as Brigadier General Muhammad Kaddour of the Aleppo Security Committee, stated that they “fight under the banner of Hussein.” Louay al-Miqdad, one of the most prominent spokesmen of the opposition FSA, subsequently accused the Syrian military and Hezbollah of preparing, on the orders of Russia or Iran, a “genocide” against the Syrian opposition in the area of Aleppo.
Hezbollah and Arab media, sympathetic to the Assad government, have brought special attention to the plight of Nubul and al-Zahraa's residents. During the winter of 2013, it was reported that flour, bread, sugar, food, cooking oil, and medicine were scarce in the villages as a result of a blockade imposed by the Syrian armed opposition. The blockade was also stated to have prevented the Syrian Red Cross and Red Crescent from accessing the villages’ residents.
A Hezbollah media outlet stated that the blockade had been imposed by the militant Salafist Jabhat al-Nusra, which it referred to as a “takfiri” group, and was leading to a “humanitarian disaster” in Nubul and al-Zahraa. Further emphasizing the existential threat of militant Salafist fighters to sectarian minorities such as Shiites and Alawites, one Lebanese newspaper reported that 30 young men from Nubul and al-Zahraa had been beheaded by Jabhat al-Nusra and its “Wahhabist” allies, and published a graphic photo of the beheading of two young men that it claimed were from the villages.
The existential struggle and trauma of war suffered by the residents of Nubul and al-Zahraa is becoming a rallying cry for the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese. As Syrian military and Hezbollah forces approached victory in al-Qusayr, a popular Facebook group sympathetic to Hezbollah declared: “Our Next Mission: After al-Qusayr, Nubul and Zahraa.”
Rebel control over large sections of the region of Aleppo provides the Syrian armed opposition with strategic rear and interior lines of communication from southern Turkey. The disruption of rebel held areas of the northern Aleppo governorate, particularly its logistics route north-to-south from the Turkish border through the contested areas around Nubul and al-Zahraa’ to the front-lines of Aleppo, would be a significant blow to the armed opposition.
Control over Nubul and al-Zahraa provides the Syrian military and its allies with a convenient staging point to apply pressure to the armed opposition in the city of Aleppo, and attempt to disrupt and seize key opposition logistical nodes such as Azaz. Combat in Aleppo and its suburbs provides Hezbollah and the Syrian military an opportunity to continue to refine their coordinated counter-insurgency strategy by building the capacity of local Popular Committees to hold loyalist or neutral areas, and to conduct offensives against opposition villages and market cities surrounding major contested cities, such as Aleppo and Homs.
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