Around 4,000 fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah are now fighting in Syria, according to French estimates.
Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution yesterday condemning foreign fighters supporting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
And French foreign minister Laurent Fabius told his country’s parliament: “As far as Hezbollah militants present in the battlefield, the figures range from 3,000 to 10,000. Our estimates are between 3,000 and 4,000.”
According to reports from Lebanon, Hezbollah has demanded the Palestinian militant group Hamas leave Syria amid a rift between the two Islamic fundamentalist movements over the fighting in the country.
The Arabic language website Youkal.net yesterday reported that a senior official in Hezbollah informed Hamas’ representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, that Hamas and its cadres were “undesirable” and should leave the country immediately. No comment was available last night from Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas is a Sunni Muslim group, and as such is opposed to the Alawite government of Mr Assad, which is supported by the Shia Hezbollah. Hezbollah, backed heavily by Iran, is increasingly involved in the Syrian conflict, bringing manpower to shore up Mr Assad’s forces.
Mr Assad’s troops and Hezbollah fighters surround the town of Qusair, near the border with Lebanon, from three sides. Seizing Qusair would secure territory connecting the capital Damascus to Mr Assad’s stronghold on the Mediterranean coast.
The UN Human Rights Council resolution – sponsored by Turkey, Qatar and the US – calls for investigation into alleged abuses by government forces and Hezbollah fighters in Qusair, along with more aid access and civilian protection. Only Venezuela voted against it. Eight countries in the 47-nation council abstained; two were absent.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said: “The situation in Syria reflects a colossal failure to protect civilians.
“The message from all of us should be the same: we will not support this conflict with arms, ammunition, politics or religion.”
US ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe said of Mr Assad’s regime and its allies: “The world is watching and they will be held accountable.
“We condemn Hezbollah’s direct role in the hostilities, a role which inflames regional tensions, escalates violence inside Syria, and incites instability in Lebanon. The regime has an opportunity to calm these tensions now by ending its assault.”
Russian ambassador Alexey Borodavkin said his government, which has backed Mr Assad, wants the “crisis rapidly to be surmounted by the Syrians themselves,” and the resolution could complicate efforts to bring the government and opposition to the negotiating table for a planned peace conference in Geneva in June.
Syrian ambassador Fayssal al-Hamwi accused Qatar and Turkey of being “major parties in the bloodshed in Syria” by helping to recruit jihadist extremists from more than 40 countries, and he called the resolution biased and politically motivated.
He said: “It was drafted in a hate-filled and unconstructive manner. It has nothing to do with transparency. It is far from the truth.”
Syria’s opposition coalition said it would only take part in the planned peace conference in Geneva if a deadline was set for an internationally-guaranteed settlement based on Mr Assad leaving power.
The coalition voted in Istanbul to adopt a declaration that said it was committed to the aim of removing Mr Assad and his most senior officials.
The declaration was issued after seven days of meetings riven by internal dispute.
The 60-member coalition has so far failed to agree on the wider involvement of a liberal opposition bloc, to the dismay of international backers keen to reduce Islamist influence.