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.