Shiite Enclaves North of Aleppo Becoming Staging Grounds for Hezbollah’s Next Offensive

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 13

Syrian rebels rest in a safe house in Aleppo (Source Reuters)

The question of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has become more intense following the recent capture of the strategic, central-western Syrian border city of al-Qusayr in Homs governorate to 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 northwestern 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 strategic, contested city of Aleppo (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 4).  

 

Nubul and al-Zahraa’ are situated northwest of the city of Aleppo on the major highway 214 that 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 (al-Jazeera [Doha], August 17, 2012; al-Arabiya [Dubai], June 8). 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 (al-Arabiya [Dubai], June 8; al-Jazeera [Doha], June 12).

 

Pro-Assad Enclaves Nubul and al-Zahraa’

 

Nubul and 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 the Turkish border and several armed-opposition controlled areas and staging points from Turkey into Syria (al-Mayadeen [Beirut], October 28, 2012). Tension between the residents of pro and anti-opposition villages in the area has led to communal recriminations and conflict (al-Mayadeen [Beirut], October 28, 2012). 

 

The Syrian armed opposition has consistently accused Hezbollah of participating in Syrian military operations staged from the area of 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 Syrian military (Deir ez Zor Press, April 25). 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 YouTube video that they have been battling Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard fighters in the vicinity of Nubul and al-Zahraa’, and Syrian military units and shabiha (ghosts) paramilitary militias based in the villages. [1]

 

Iraqi Shiite fighters of the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, who normally operate in the southern Damascus suburb Sayyida Zeinab, are also reported by the opposition to be fighting with Hezbollah and the Syrian military in the area around Aleppo (al-Seyessah [Kuwait City], June 10). However, pro-government Popular Committee local defense 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 fighting in the area is “disinformation” put out by the armed opposition (al-Akhbar [Beirut], May 31; for more information on the Popular Committees see Terrorism Monitor, March 2).

 

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 the area of 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 (al-Arabiya [Dubai], June 4). 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 Free Syrian Army, 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 (Okaz [Jeddah], June 5).

 

Hezbollah media and Arab media sympathetic to the Assad government have brought special attention to the plight of the residents of Nubul and al-Zahraa’. 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. [2] 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’. [3] Further emphasizing the existential threat of militant Salafist fighters to sectarian minorities such as Shi’a and Alawites, one Lebanese newspaper reported that 30 young men from Nubul and 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 (al-Khabar Press [Beirut], April 28). 

 

The existential struggle and trauma of war suffered by the residents of Nubul and 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’.” [4]  

 

Conclusion

 

Rebel control over large sections of the region of Aleppo provides it with a 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. 

 

Notes

 

1. The armed opposition group Army of Muhammad in the Balad ash-Sham posted a video of a shabiha members it claims to have killed from Nubul and al-Zahraa’ on its YouTube page on April 24, Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ATkIRUIms2k; The Fatah Battalion in Aleppo released a video on it YouTube page on May 19 that it claims was from the vicinity of Nubul and al-Zahraa’, accusing Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard fighters of using the villages as staging points. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMuPe4c0G-A.

2. Pro-Hezbollah Resist Forum thread posted January 18, Available at: http://forum.qawem.org/showthread.php?84380-100-%C3%E1%DD-%D4%ED%DA%ED-%E3%D8%E6%F8%DE%E6%E4-%DD%ED-%E4%C8%E1-%E6%C7%E1%D2%E5%D1%C7%C1-%E6%C8%D1%C7%CF-%DD%ED-%CE%D8%D1-%CF%C7%E5%E3.

3. A detailed description of the blockade and humanitarian consequences of the blockade on the people of Nubul and al-Zahraa’ was provided by an article on the al-Ahed News website on April 24, Available at: http://www.alahednews.com.lb/essaydetails.php?eid=74913&cid=76.

4. “South Lebanon,” Facebook Group Status Update posted on June 5, Available at: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=465428926873976&set=a.219467264803478.55782.219459841470887&type=1.