“It is the most visible effort we have seen by Hezbollah to engage directly in the fighting in Syria as a foreign force, and we understand there are also Iranians up there,” a senior State Department official told reporters.
His information was based on reports from commanders of the rebel Free Syrian Army, but he was unable to give any estimates of how many Hezbollah fighters or Iranians were involved, and what exact role the Iranians were playing.
“I don’t know that they are directly involved in the fighting, but I don’t think the people that I’m talking to know that themselves,” the official told reporters travelling with US Secretary of State John Kerry.
“This is an important thing to note — the direct implication of foreigners on Syrian soil for the regime,” he cautioned on a conference call in Muscat.
Many opposition commanders had reported that forces from the powerful Shiite Lebanese movement Hezbollah “are directly engaged in fighting literally on the streets. They say that their men… are directly fighting against Hezbollah commanders.”
“Iran’s role and Hezbollah’s role have grown substantially over the last couple of months,” he warned ahead of a Friends of Syria meeting to be held in Jordan on Wednesday.
Observers have alleged that Hezbollah fighters were leading the battle for Qusayr in Homs province, three days after the Syrian regime began an assault to regain control of the town.
The town is a key strategic prize as it sits on the main highway between Damascus and the Mediterranean coast, and also controls rebel supply routes from the mainly Sunni Muslim port of Tripoli in neighbouring Lebanon.
“The world is watching this and we are watching this and we will know if they commit massacres.. and we will hold them accountable,” the US official warned the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian opposition had voiced concerns that “when regime forces do go into Qusayr, if they do capture it, that there will be retaliation against the civilian population,” he added, stressing “there are still thousands of civilians in the city.”