Hezbollah and Al Qaeda Fighters Edging Closer to Full Scale Confrontation

PHOTO: Fighters from Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra take their positions on the front line during a clash with Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad in Aleppo, Dec. 24, 2012.

Two men dressed in camouflage stand on a patch of dirt amid rubble, Kalashnikov rifles at their sides, at the entrance to a dark hole in the dirt. The wooden screens often found in mosques lay on the ground, cast aside. The hole was the burial place of Hujr bin Uday al-Kindi, one of the prophet Mohammad's companions, widely revered by Muslims, Shiites in particular.

The men standing on top of it are members of Jabhat al-Nusra, a Sunni Muslim extremist rebel group trying to topple the regime of President Bashar al-Assad that recently swore fealty to al Qaeda's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The desecration of the shrine - and the removal of the remains - drew condemnation from the highest levels of Shiite Islam. Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called it "bitter and sad," while the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon issued a statement stark warning that it "foretells a large conflict and gloomy evil."

That large conflict is what many fear is the next chapter of Syria's brutal two-year war. As it drags on, it has grown more sectarian and more likely to spill over into neighboring countries. In the immediate term, Lebanon would be foremost among them, directly pitting Hezbollah militants against al Qaeda-linked jihadists who have flocked to Syria from across the Muslim world.

Hezbollah fighters are already fighting those rebels on a relatively small scale in Syria, the group's leader confirmed last week. Several dozen are believed to have been killed in the past several months, their bodies sent back to Lebanon for burial.

Most of the action they've seen recently has been defending the Lebanese Shiites living in over 20 border villages inside Syria, notably al-Qasr, home to Lebanese Shiites and Christians which has come under attack by fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra.

The second of Hezbollah's main missions in Syria is to defend the Sayyida Zeinab shrine near Damascus (other Shiites - Iraqis - are believed to be there as well). The ornately decorated shrine is where the granddaughter of the prophet Mohammed is buried, a highly sacred place for Shiites that normally sees pilgrims visiting year-round.

In a conflict in which the phrase "red line" has been bandied about by most of its participants, Hezbollah's leader, Shiekh Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, last week seemed to draw one of his own, warning of "serious repercussions" if the shrine is attacked.

Syria's conflict is often described as a "civil war," but that is only true insofar as it has yet to spill over into another country on a large scale or draw in too many different forces. But it is the quintessential proxy war, with the Alawite (an offshoot of Shia Islam) Assad regime backed up by Shia allies Hezbollah and Iran, as well as Russia and China.

The Sunni rebels are supported by the Islamist rulers of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, as well as the U.S., France, Britain and others.

Raising tensions further are the twin air strikes carried out by Israel in Syria last on Friday and Sunday, the primary targets are believed to have been missiles heading to Hezbollah from Iran, their primary backer.

"Iran stands at the side of Syria in the face of Israeli aggression, whose aim is to damage the security of the region and weaken the axis of resistance," Iranian Foreign Minister Akhbar Salehi told Assad in a meeting in Damascus on Tuesday.

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