The leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group has warned that allies of the Syrian regime would not allow it to fall at the hands of rebel forces. He indicated that his Iranian-backed forces were ready to intervene.
In a speech aired by Hezbollah's television Al-Manar on Tuesday, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah warned Syrian rebels they would not be able to topple President Bashar al-Assad's regime using force.
"Syria has real friends in the region and the world who will not let Syria fall in the hands of America, in the hands of Israel or in the hands of extremist groups," the movement's leader said.
"The battle is long ... We tell you [Syrian rebels] that you will not be able to bring this regime down through military means," he added.
Backed and financed by Iran, Hezbollah is a staunch ally of President al-Assad. Syrian rebels have accused both Iran and Hezbollah of sending fighters to assist Syrian troops in fighting mainly Sunni opposition forces.
The Shiite Muslim group has formally denied the allegations, admitting only to protecting Shiite villages along Lebanon's border with Syria. It claims more than 30,000 Shiite Lebanese live in the affected villages.
"We say it clearly, we will not leave the Lebanese in the Qusair rural area vulnerable to attack by armed groups. Who ever needs help, we will not hesitate to give it," Nasrallah said Tuesday.
His comments were the strongest indication yet that Hezbollah fighters would be open to greater participation in Syria "if the conflict escalates more."
According to UN figures the two-year conflict in Syria has claimed the lives of more than 70,000 people. What started as an uprising against al-Assad's regime has now deteriorated into a civil war, which threatens to exacerbate sectarian tensions throughout the region.
Increased involvement from Hezbollah will almost certainly threaten stability in Lebanon, which is deeply divided along sectarian lines. It would also risk involvement from Iran and Israel.
Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, has the backing of Shiite Iran which has also previously indicated it would not allow the regime to fall to Sunni forces.
ccp/ch (AFP, AP, Reuters)