The self-proclaimed "Party of God" is throwing its fighters into Syria's bloody war. And according to its own media sources, it has already suffered significant losses.
Hezbollah is throwing its men into battle in the Syrian city of Qusayr, and many are returning to Lebanon in coffins. Through their funerals and commemorations posted on pro-Hezbollah Facebook pages, we are now getting a sense of the casualties that the self-proclaimed "Party of God" is suffering as it joins the Syrian conflict on the side of President Bashar al-Assad.
It's no secret why Qusayr is a vital piece of real estate for both the Syrian regime and the Lebanese paramilitary group. The city is a strategic link in the Syrian communications chain, connecting the capital of Damascus, Syria's Alawite-dominated coastal highlands, and Hezbollah's heartland in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley. The Lebanese border is only a few miles to the city's west, and the Damascus-Aleppo highway lies to its east.
Hezbollah maintains a tight lid on information about its fighters. The Lebanese paramilitary organization does not acknowledge that its fighters are being killed in Syria, and employs vague language to explain their deaths: All fighters who have been killed in Syria are said to have died performing their "Jihadist duties." Secretary of State John Kerry said on May 22 there were "several thousands" of Hezbollah fighters engaged in combat in Syria.
But Hezbollah can't conceal the reality of their fighters' deaths in Syria entirely. The group often announces a fighter's death on the day of the funeral, or a day before it. These funerals are carefully scripted, and access by non-Hezbollah media is severely restricted. New York Times reporter Anne Barnard was even thrown out of a funeral when she was covering the death of Hassan Faysal Shuker, one of 12 dead Hezbollah members named by the organization during the height of the fighting in Qusayr.
Utilizing a mixture of YouTube videos of funerals and of the fighters, Hezbollah's official announcements, webpages for Hezbollah-controlled towns and villages, quasi-official Facebook pages (including the personal pages of some Hezbollah members), and Hezbollah web forums, I have been able to compile figures tracking the party's dead in Syria. While this system primarily relies on Hezbollah sources, which tend to conceal total numbers of dead, it has so far provided roughly three to 10 hours of advance knowledge of a Hezbollah member's death before their passing is announced on Hezbollah's official al-Manar television station.
Facebook announcements of Hezbollah fighters' deaths are not just the work of overzealous activists or family members. The vast majority of posted photos and announcements appear to have been approved by Hezbollah's extensive media apparatus. Many Facebook announcements overlap with the party's official forum, Qawem.org. This suggests the same administrators at that forum also run many of the myriad pro-Hezbollah Facebook pages.
Based on these official Hezbollah and pro-Hezbollah sources, I counted a total of 20 Hezbollah members killed from the period starting on May 18 until mid-day on May 20. Due to the timing of the announcements, it stands to reason that a majority of these fighters died while engaged in the heavy fighting around Qusayr.
Despite Hezbollah's obscuring of facts surrounding their dead, it is clear their supporters know these men met their end in Syria. Chants of "Labayka ya Zaynab" ("We are here for you, O Zaynab") are ubiquitous at funerals for Hezbollah's martyrs. The highly sectarian and mantra-like chant references the Zaynab mosque in Damascus, an important Shia shrine near Damascus and a gathering point for pro-Iranian foreign fighters in Syria.
Qusayr isn't Hezbollah's first battle in Syria -- for months, its militiamen have also taken part in fighting around the Zaynab shrine. While in Damascus, Hezbollah members tend to operate under the moniker of a group called Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA). The group is comprised of fighters from throughout the Shia world, the vast majority coming from Iranian proxy parties in Iraq and from Hezbollah. The group takes its name from a legendary Shiite fighter who was martyred during the Battle of Karbala, a central event in Shiism. Hezbollah's dead are often also claimed by LAFA on their wide network of Facebook pages.
When a Hezbollah fighter is killed, the party often releases a photograph of the militiaman when he was still living. Their posters sometimes feature the Zaynab shrine's golden dome in the background. Hezbollah's semi-official Facebook announcements tend to offer the best information of the circumstances of a fighter's death: Some photographs are posted with a caption reading "[Died while] defending Sayyida [Lady] Zaynab" or "martyred during the sacred defense."
Sometimes, there is enough publicly available information about a fallen Hezbollah militiaman to reach a conclusion about where he was fighting at the time of his death. The case of Hezbollah’s “Haidar” Ali Jamal Jishi presents the perfect case where cross-referencing on YouTube, Facebook, and official Hezbollah pages established, without a doubt, that he was operating in Damascus. In one video, Jishi is seen firing a recoilless rifle in Damascus's Midan neighborhood. Semi-official Facebook announcements of his death said he died "defending Sayda Zaynab." Jishi was also pictured fighting in an urban area, and some of his martyrdom posters feature the gold dome of the shrine. However, Jishi's case is a rarity -- in most cases, it is difficult to determine with any degree of certainty where a Hezbollah fighter died.
Other death notices suggest strongly that Hezbollah fighters were killed in Qusayr. One of the deceased fighters, Muhammed Fouad Raba', was pictured in an April 15 photo with what appears to be a Syrian military ZSU-23-4 anti-aircraft gun. The photo's date also coincides with the beginning of the joint Syrian military-Hezbollah assault on Qusayr.
Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has explained his party's involvement in Syria by saying that it is an ad hoc effort by fighters from areas bordering the conflict zone to protect Shia villages within Syria. But the information coming to light about the dead belie that claim: Hezbollah's slain fighters come from a diverse set of locations within Lebanon, from towns in the central Beqaa to southern Lebanese towns on the Israel-Lebanon border. While burials of the Hezbollah fighters occur in these villages and towns, it is still hard to gauge where exactly they were living in Lebanon prior to the fighting in Syria, as funerals are generally held in those areas from where their families originated.
Another narrative, primarily one emerging from pro-rebel sources, was that Hezbollah was mainly losing young men. This too appears to be incorrect: While ages of those killed are very rarely posted by any Hezbollah-affiliated source, a number of older members have been killed in Syria. Ahmed Kamal Khurees, a Hezbollah fighter from the southern Lebanese town of Khiam, sports a white beard in his martyrdom photo. Fadi Muhammed Jazar, a Hezbollah member -- and possible commander -- who served time in Israeli prisons and was released during a 2004 Hezbollah-Israel prisoner exchange, was no youngster. Ibrahim Husayn, reportedly a Hezbollah commander, was also an older fighter. The presence of veteran fighters in Syria underlines the importance of this campaign for Hezbollah.
As fighting around Qusayr continues and announcements of new deaths flood in, one thing is certain: Hezbollah's involvement in Syria will only continue to grow. The group's slain fighters will now find graves in the soil of Lebanon, and on pages commemorating their life and death on Facebook.