Hezbollah strengthens Syrian forces

Hezbollah are fighting their biggest battle yet for beleagured Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A bombed house in Harem, Syria. Picture: Rahima Essop/EWN.

AMMAN/BEIRUT - Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas have fought their biggest battle yet for Syria's beleaguered president, prompting international alarm that the civil war may spread and an urgent call for restraint from the United States.

About 30 Hezbollah fighters were killed on Sunday, Syrian activists said, along with 20 Syrian troops and militiamen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad during the fiercest fighting this year in the rebel stronghold of Qusair, near the Lebanon border.

That would be the highest daily loss for the Iranian-backed movement in Syria, highlighting how it is increasing its efforts to bolster Assad; prompting US President Barack Obama to voice his concern to Lebanese counterpart, Michel Suleiman.

If confirmed, the Hezbollah losses reflect how Syria is becoming a proxy conflict between Shi'ite Iran and Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which back Assad's mostly Sunni enemies. Dozens of dead in sectarian bombings in Iraq on Monday and killings in the Lebanese city of Tripoli compounded a sense of spreading regional confrontation.

Western powers and Russia back opposing sides in the cross-border Syrian free-for-all.

The White House said Obama spoke to Lebanese President Suleiman and "stressed his concern about Hezbollah's active and growing role in Syria, fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, which is counter to the Lebanese government's policies".

The Beirut government, however, has limited means to influence the politically and militarily powerful Shi'ite group.

The two leaders agreed "all parties should respect Lebanon's policy of disassociation from the conflict in Syria and avoid actions that will involve the Lebanese people in the conflict".

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country was preparing for every scenario in Syria and held out the prospect of more Israeli strikes on Syria to stop Hezbollah and other opponents of Israel obtaining advanced weapons.

Israel has not confirmed or denied reports by Western and Israeli intelligence sources that three raids this year targeted Iranian missiles near Damascus that it believed were awaiting delivery to Hezbollah.

A total of 100 combatants from both sides were killed in Sunday's offensive, according to opposition sources, including the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Such a death toll would indicate at least hundreds had taken part.

Syrian television also showed footage of what it said was an Israeli military Jeep which it said the rebels had been using and which showed the extent of their foreign backing.

The Western-backed leadership of the Free Syrian Army, the loose umbrella group trying to oversee hundreds of disparate rebel brigades, said the Qusair fighters had thwarted Hezbollah with military operations it dubbed "Walls of Death".

The fighting raged as Western nations are seeking to step up pressure on Assad - Britain and France want the European Union to allow arms deliveries to rebels while preparing for the peace talks brokered by Russia and the United States next month.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose country has shielded Syria from UN Security Council action, said Syrian opposition representatives must take part without precondition, apparently referring to their demands for Assad's exit before they come to the table.

Assad has scorned the idea that the conference expected to convene in Geneva could end a war that is fuelling instability and deepening Sunni-Shi'ite rifts across the Middle East and he ruled out dialogue with terrorists.

The fractured Syrian opposition is to discuss the proposed peace conference at a meeting due to start in Istanbul on Thursday, during which it will also appoint a new leadership.

Assad, from Syria's minority Alawite sect, has been battling an uprising which began with peaceful protests in March 2011. His violent response eventually prompted rebels to take up arms.

Syrian government restrictions on access for independent media make it hard to verify such videos and accounts.

Hezbollah has supported Assad throughout the crisis but for months denied reports it was fighting alongside Assad's troops.