The battles in Qalamoun: No turning back

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Syrian army units patrol parts of the Qalamoun region in an effort to drive out militants. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Hassan Illeik

Published Friday, October 10, 2014

The leaders of the armed Syrian opposition in the mountains of Qalamoun are making extensive claims about victories they have purportedly achieved in the area, promising more to come. But by contrast, their enemies accuse them of propagandizing and peddling claims that are not substantiated by facts on the ground. Indeed, Hezbollah and the Syrian army stress vehemently that this entire area is strategically invaluable, and that there can be no turning back there.

Since the start of last summer, the fighters of the Syrian army and Hezbollah have managed to repel more than six major assaults in the direction of Lebanese territory or within Syrian territory, from the Qusayr countryside to Qalamoun – the battles in the wilderness near Brital and beyond on Sunday being the sixth such round. On the Syrian side of the front, the leadership of al-Nusra Front has been focusing on the town of Assal al-Ward. This town is closest among the towns of Qalamoun to the Lebanese border (opposite the town of Tufail). The wilderness area near the town also connects with those of Tufail, Serghaya, and Zabadani. For this reason, the militants have focused their attacks on this region, at a rate of one attack per week (though some attacks were very limited in scope).

In the six major attacks, as well as in the limited ones, the opposition militants, led by ISIS and al-Nusra Front, failed to make a breach that would allow them to restore their “lost glory” in Qalamoun. Only once did they get close, when they used sleeper cells that penetrated into the hills in the direction of Talfita. However, the breach was soon addressed and the militants’ plan was thwarted.

Battle after battle, the fighters of Hezbollah and the Syrian soldiers become better acquainted with their adversaries. The Resistance does not underestimate the capabilities of its foes, however, though it refuses to be dragged into their propaganda game. Commanders acknowledge, “The battle is fierce... and we pay a heavy price in the mountains, but it remains immeasurably lower than what the Lebanese in general and the people of the Bekaa in particular would have had to bear if the militants were still in control of the Homs southern countryside (al-Qusayr region) and the northern Damascus countryside (Qalamoun).”

Syrian sources, meanwhile, and others close to Hezbollah, assert that the opposition militants are fighting a futile battle, and say that even if they managed to make a breach somewhere, they would not be able to maintain it. “If they delude themselves into thinking that winter can protect them from our attacks, let them remember that the liberation of Qalamoun began last February,” they added.

In the view of those following up on the battles in the mountains, the militants lose in each battle some of their “elite” fighters. Attacks like these cannot be carried out by ordinary fighters, after all, who just bear arms but are not skilled fighters and do not have the courage to stage daring attacks. So with each battle, al-Nusra Front and ISIS, as well as other factions, lose more and more experienced fighters. While reinforcements never stopped, especially through Ersal, despite the measures taken by the Lebanese army, “the new recruits are not as experienced as those who perish.”

Meanwhile, sources familiar with the situation in the mountains point out that Hezbollah would not have attacked the area, because a battle without fully isolating Ersal would be pointless. However, the sources continued, the opposition fighters saved Hezbollah from having to fight an offensive operation, and instead of lurking for the Resistance to drain its forces in the hills and valleys they controlled, the militants came down from the wilderness areas and started attacking Hezbollah and Syrian army positions on both sides of the border. In most attacks, the defenders were able to repel the attacks without any losses. But in others, a lofty price was paid to prevent the militants from advancing and turning the areas into a staging ground to launch attacks inside Lebanese territory.

Sources close to Hezbollah say that the militants in Qalamoun are mimicking what their comrades in the Eastern Ghouta (eastern Damascus countryside) had done. In Ghouta, the militants carried out successive attacks to break the siege imposed on them. These successive “human waves,” some of which inflicted heavy losses on the Syrian army and its allies, ended up “breaking the back of the militants,” according to Syrian military sources.

The last of these attacks took place in November 2013, when the militants almost succeeded in breaking the siege on Ghouta. However, the Syrian army and Hezbollah were able to regain control of the situation, killing and wounding hundreds of the attackers. After that, the opposition militants occupied Adra al-Omalia, but since then, they have been unable to carry out large-scale attacks. They may make a breach in a given front, but it is very difficult for them to majorly alter the reality on the battlefield.

Sources close to Hezbollah ask whether the hype in the media the militants have made in the last days and weeks reflects changes on the ground in Qalamoun, to which the sources then answer, “The distribution of the forces on the ground has not changed. The only change was in our favor, when we controlled hills to fortify positions inside Lebanese territory.”

The sources say that the militants are “desperate” to regain control over some towns before winter. They believe that staying out in the open and in outdoor camps would weaken them. The militants are in a difficult position, the sources continue: they have a lot of weapons, but in one position they seized, for example, they opted to take food supplies as they withdrew, leaving ammunitions and weapons. Asked whether the hype in the media they stood behind means they are close to achieving the goal of seizing villages, the sources answer in the negative.

What comes next?

The Syrian army and Hezbollah are preparing to “receive the militants.” Sources close to Hezbollah said, “We know they will fight fiercely and carry out attacks that are close to being suicide. They may stage attacks in Lebanon to attract media and political attention. But with every attack, they will lose more and more of their veteran fighters. They will not be able to take things back to how they were before the liberation of Qalamoun last February.”

The sources continued, “Whenever they launch an attack, they will become less and less able to advance. Hezbollah and the Syrian army will not stand idly by, and will step up their special and security operations.” Summing up the plans of the Resistance leadership regarding the events in Qalamoun, the sources then said, “The decision to take part in the conflict in Syria has many motives, most notably to prevent al-Nusra Front and ISIS, and their allies, from controlling Syrian regions adjacent to the border with the Bekaa. This is a red line and crossing it is forbidden.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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