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In Syria, Hezbollah forces appear ready to attack rebels in city of Aleppo

| Sunday, June 2, 2013, 9:24 p.m.

Thousands of Lebanese Hezbollah militants were massed around the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Sunday, according to rebels and a senior commander in the Lebanese Shiite movement, broadening Hezbollah's backing of President Bashar Assad's forces and stoking fears of an imminent assault on the city.

The commander, who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said there were about 2,000 Hezbollah fighters in Aleppo province, largely stationed in Shiite towns north of the city. The Free Syrian Army said Hezbollah forces had gathered in a suburb of the city on Sunday and appeared to be preparing for an attack.

Rebels have secured swaths of Aleppo, Syria's commercial capital and most populous city, since fighting engulfed it last summer, but the two sides have been locked in a grinding stalemate for months. An assault on the city could stretch rebel forces, which have sent reinforcements from Aleppo to fight Hezbollah and Syrian army troops in the battle for the town of Qusair, near the Lebanese border.

The claims of a Hezbollah presence in Syria's north follows a pledge by its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, to back Assad to victory and indicates that the movement could be used as a guerrilla force wherever required. A longstanding ally of Syria and Iran, its decision to knuckle into the fight raises the specter of a regional conflagration spilling over Syria's borders, pitting Sunni against Shiite. Underscoring that point, Syrian rebels and Hezbollah fighters engaged in their first serious clashes on Lebanese soil on Sunday.

“The Aleppo battle has started on a very small scale; we've only just entered the game,” said the commander in Beirut on Saturday while on leave from fighting in Qusair where he oversees five units.

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