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Hezbollah boosts
presence in Latakia

The Lebanese party has opened an office to recruit Alawites to fight on behalf of the Assad regime.

Latakia. (AFP/Joseph Eid)

BEIRUT – Hezbollah has bolstered its presence in Syria’s Latakia with the official opening of a party office and the conversion of a Sunni Mosque into a Shiite seminary.

 

The public expansion of its operations in the coastal city—which is a stronghold for the Bashar al-Assad regime—comes as the Shiite party has ramped up its military presence in the area.

 

Hezbollah had reportedly taken part in the government’s failed offensive launched in early March 2015 to take the town of Salma, a rebel stronghold approximately 35 kilometers northeast of Latakia.

 

The Syrian regime’s military campaign was hampered by manpower shortages, which saw naval units and foreign troops pressed into battles.

 

Al-Jazeera reported Wednesday that the party “openly participated in the last two battles regime forces launched against Latakia Governorate’s Jabal al-Akrad area last week.”

 

“Hezbollah admitted that five of its fighters were killed in the two battles and held official funeral ceremonies for them southern Beirut’s Dahiyeh area.”

 

The overt presence of the Lebanese party also comes amid rebel gains in northwestern Syria, where opposition forces have rolled back regime troops in Idlib along a road leading into the coastal city.

 

Training Alawites

 

Hezbollah officially opened its Latakia office in an upscale area of the city with the aim of organizing the recruitment of Alawites to fight on behalf of the regime, according to reports.

 

“We have received information confirming that the office will lead an operation to organize Hezbollah’s Syrian [branch] in Latakia and that it will work to recruit people who wish to fight against Syria’s rebels,” local activist Mohammad al-Sahili told Al-Jazeera.

 

A source close to the regime’s Desert Falcons militia told Souria Net that “Hezbollah is currently working to train Syrian cadres, especially from the Alawite and Shiite sects.”

 

The source, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that “any Alawite officer can join Hezbollah. He will have no connection to the army or any other militia.”

 

“Furthermore, the party will take care of all the expenses and procedures that facilitate his signing-up.”

 

Hezbollah’s new Latakia office is situated in the city’s central Baghdad Street opposite the provincial police headquarters, where members of the party have deployed on the streets carrying party banners and set up two checkpoints, Al-Jazeera reported.

 

Hezbollah’s flag was raised above the building and displayed on its balconies, according to the activist who spoke to the station.

 

He said that dozens of four wheel drive cars filled the street and parked in neighboring alleys, blocking them off to other cars. He also noted that the office was being run by Lebanese Shiite personalities and that the staff only included one Syrian.

 

For its part, Souria Net reported that, as well as the provincial police headquarters, the office is located close to a number of buildings belonging to the Assad family, including the Engineers Union and an office belonging to Kamal al-Assad and his brother Fawwaz.

 

Mosque Conversion

 

Along with the opening of Hezbollah’s new office, a Sunni mosque in Latakia was converted into a Shiite seminary.

 

A clerical source, identified by his initials as Sheikh S. W., told Al-Jazeera that the mosque was converted at the orders of Latakia’s Awkaf Directorate. He also noted that the move had been influenced by pressure from the regime’s security apparatuses.

 

The cleric said that Hezbollah members had prevented the mosque’s Sunni Imam from entering the building to lead prayers, adding that “oppression of Sunnis has reached its peak in the coastal city and that he is afraid that a tragedy could occur.”

 

The decision to turn the Mosque in to a seminary had been taken as “revenge against the Sunni community” according to the sheikh, who explained that many Sunnis “came out of that mosque in their peaceful demonstrations at the beginning of the revolution.”

Hezbollah has ramped up its presence in Syria's Latakia. (AFP/Joseph Eid)

Hezbollah’s flag was raised above the building and displayed on its balconies, according to the activist who spoke to the station.