Syria: War in Qalamoun Didn’t Begin Because It Never Stopped

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A rebel fighter monitors the surrounding area during clashes with government forces in the Syrian northeastern city of Deir Ezzor, on October 28, 2013. (Photo: AFP - Ahmad Aboud)

By: Firas Choufi, Marah Mashi

Published Thursday, October 31, 2013

It appears that the much-hyped “Great Battle of Qalamoun” will only take place in the media. While the Syrian army does not deny that it has been mobilizing troops in the vicinity of the Qalamoun district, a Qusayr-like battle is not inevitable. Instead, gradual advances are taking place to spare Qalamoun large-scale devastation.

There are daily battles in Qalamoun, the western Syrian mountain range that extends from the Dreij area in the south to Homs. The mountain range may be seen as part of the Eastern Lebanon Mountains, which link Mount Hermon in the south to the plains of Homs.

In truth, this could be a time when Damascus is most reassured to the movements on the battlefield ever since the Syrian army began its counterattack in November 2012. The plan to establish a safe zone around Damascus by securing eastern and western Ghouta is making headway, and also in Homs, where the Syrian army now controls up to 80 percent of the city, according to Syrian military sources.

In Daraa, which the army considers to be a weak link in its security plans as arms and fighters continue to flow through it to the Damascus countryside, efforts are underway to cut supply routes and secure the city. The fierce shelling sustained throughout the past week against the strongholds of al-Nusra Front and the Army of Islam there can be seen in this context. The situation in Idlib is similar to that of Daraa.

But sources say that the situation in Aleppo and its countryside is quite different from the rest of the battlefronts. Those in charge in Damascus are convinced that the battle of Aleppo cannot be settled by tanks and warplanes, but only by a political agreement, which the sources say “will come sooner or later, compelling Turkey to close the borders and isolate the militants regardless of their affiliations, before the Syrian army begins pursuing them in the vast areas of the north.”

“The Army will keep its hold on the liberated neighborhoods in [Aleppo] and access routes, and attempt to expand the safe zone as much as possible, while continuing military operations and precision targeting of militant weapons caches and command centers.”

What About Qalamoun?

Sources say that the army prioritizes its operations, especially in a vast and complex area like Qalamoun. For instance, the army proceeds to first secure the areas that “pose a threat to the army’s main weapons caches, airstrips, or bases, and also the areas that compromise strategic routes, followed by areas that constitute a direct threat to Damascus.”

No doubt, Qalamoun, and its Lebanese extensions in Ersal and the wilderness around it, has become a haven for a large number of Syrian opposition fighters from various affiliations, starting with the Army of Islam, al-Furqan Brigades, and Suqur al-Sham Brigades, and not ending with al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and other militants fleeing the battles in Ghouta. The area also poses a direct risk to the international expressway between Damascus and the governorates of Homs, Hama, Idlib, Tartous, and Latakia.

Subsequently, it is of paramount importance for the Syrian army to retake Qalamoun. But the sources explained how the methods used in the battle of Qusayr and its countryside are not appropriate in Qalamoun’s case, not only because of the different geography, but also because of current political circumstances.

The sources said: “Settling the war in Qusayr was the beginning of a political transformation and the reversal of international attitudes in favor of the regime and its allies.”

“Any battle in Qalamoun in the current political climate could damage political cards ahead of Geneva II, if it convenes, rather than being a point of strength, if settling the battle is delayed and the army is unable to achieve quick results, which is to be expected given the size of the area and its harsh topography.”

The sources added, “The military leadership and allies are convinced that things on the battlefield are going well after learning the lessons from the battles over the past two years, and exposing the tactics of the militants and those who back them.”

Carrot and Stick

A few sandbags are all that separate the towns of Qalamoun from the areas now under the Syrian army’s control. Each town has one entrance guarded by the Syrian army, which prevents wanted fugitives and militants from leaving these areas, and only civilians can enter or leave through the checkpoints. Only Deir Attiya appears confident and comfortable with its security situation, compared to its “explosive” surroundings in Qalamoun, beginning with Rankous opposite the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, all the way to Zabadani in the south, in addition to the towns located near Damascus’s northern approaches in the direction of Homs.

The Syrian army is operating on the basis that a major battle will take place here, massing troops prepared for alpine combat in more than one area, whether all the way to the Lebanese border to the west, or the south in the direction of the Barada Valley and Rankous, or the center in al-Nabak. Despite this heavy deployment, well-placed sources concerned with the battles in Qalamoun say that the army does not intend to carry out a large-scale assault on an area of this size with extensive supply lines running from places like Ersal.

The sources said, “The army has other plans, such as disjointing the area and besieging heavy militant concentrations, as well as the carrot-and-stick policy, for example.”

In a few weeks, snow will cover all mountainous roads. According to the sources, “The weather begins to intensify in late November in this high-altitude area. Snow will cut off more than 70 percent of the militants’ supply routes, mainly those extending from Ersal. In parallel, the Syrian air force, artillery emplacements, and rocket batteries will cut off the rest, placing the militants under siege from both the snow and the army.”

The Talfita Model

Those who saw the village of Talfita’s residents throwing rice at Syrian army soldiers and receiving them with songs and Syrian flags, will understand the Syrian army’s course of action. An informed Syrian military source said, “People everywhere are tired of the actions of the militants, their violations, and their infighting, especially in Qalamoun. The areas hosting the militants have started to come to their senses, asking foreign fighters to leave the villages, and urging their compatriots to turn themselves in and find a solution with the government. This is what happened in Talfita, where militants handed themselves over to the army, while foreign fighters were expelled.”

The Syrian army is thus relying on dismantling the “nurturing environments” of the militants. The source did not deny that the residents have provided intelligence to the army, “because they are sick of the militants’ occupation of their villages.”

The source then explained why the tactic of gradually snatching territory, which proved its worth in areas like Ghouta and Homs, could be the ideal solution for an area the size of Qalamoun, saying that this would reduce the army’s casualties, while sustaining pressure enables concluding local deals that prevent a lot of bloodshed and devastation.”

The latest battles unfolded in the town of Saddad before the army retook it on Monday, October 28. Sources indicated that the goal of the armed opposition in entering Saddad was to bog down the Syrian army ahead of any major battle, adding that the militants were surprised by the army’s capacity to quickly settle the confrontation. As for Maaloula, the sources said that the situation in the town is now stable and secure to a large extent.

The battle in Qalamoun will not be like the battle of Qusayr. Instead, it will be a systematic attempt to gradually seize the villages controlled by the militants, some through deals, others through force. No bell will ring to signal the start of the battle because the battle never stopped in the first place.

Hezbollah Will Not Participate

The presence of militants in Qalamoun does not only affect Syria, especially after evidence emerged that this region and its Lebanese extension in Ersal have become a staging ground for attacks in Beirut’s southern suburbs and rocket attacks in the Bekaa. Despite the media hype regarding the possibility of Hezbollah participating alongside the Syrian army in any upcoming battles along the Eastern Mountain Range, Al-Akhbar has learned that Hezbollah is not considering taking part in any military activities there, except in the event militants move on Bekaa villages, where Hezbollah is under pressure from the Syrian army’s attacks.

Al-Akhbar has also learned that the Syrian opposition in Lebanon has begun to prepare, “so that the battle in Qalamoun does not pass like the battle in Qusayr without major tension in Lebanon.” This tension would reportedly take on the form of engineered unrest in the north, the Bekaa, and the southern coastline, to distract Hezbollah and Syria’s allies. As for Tripoli, sources said that it would also be part of the unrest.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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