Fighting between Hezbollah and Sunni Islamist militants broke out on Tuesday on Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria, a local television channel said.
Twelve of the Sunni militants died in clashes in the mountainous Qalamoun region, which provides Syrian rebel groups with strategic supply routes, Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV reported. It didn’t mention any casualties on its own side. Sky News Arabia said the commander of the Hezbollah operation, Ali Alyan, was killed.
The Lebanese Shiite militia announced in 2013 that it was sending fighters to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his civil war against mostly Sunni insurgents. Since then, Hezbollah has regularly clashed with militants from the al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s Syria branch and one of the main anti-Assad groups, near the Lebanon border.
Hezbollah previously claimed that the militants, who had used Qalamoun as a base to infiltrate the Lebanese border and attack army units, had been driven out of the area.
The Shiite group has recently signaled it’s planning another offensive there. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah warned in February that militants holed up in the mountains would pose a renewed threat to Lebanese territory once the spring thaw arrived.
In a televised speech late on Tuesday, Nasrallah said that Lebanon’s government is incapable of protecting the country’s eastern border, and his group will “shoulder the responsibility” of defending it from Islamist aggression. Nasrallah also played down recent reverses for Assad in Syria, saying the loss of areas such as Idlib didn’t reflect a fundamental change in the war’s balance.
Saad Hariri, the former Lebanese premier and head of the main anti-Hezbollah parliamentary bloc, criticized the Shiite group’s military actions in Qalamoun, saying it’s encouraging a spillover of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon.