Is East Zahle Following in the Footsteps of Ersal?

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Lebanese army troops drive armoured personnel carriers (APC) in the village of Ras Baalbak in the eastern Bekaa Valley near the border with Syria during clashes between Islamist fighters and Lebanese troops on Jananuary 23, 2015, leaving casualties on both sides. AFP

By: Firas Choufi

Published Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Syrian army’s battles with the al-Nusra Front militants north of the Damascus-Beirut road have prompted the Lebanese army to take utmost caution in the area east of Zahle, and to ask residents of the Kafarzabad camps to evacuate their tents within 48 hours.

Heavy fighting has raged over the past few days between the Syrian army and al-Nusra Front. The Nusra fighters have crossed over from southeast Qalamoun toward the Zabadani Valley and the villages of Kafir Yaboos and Yaboos, which are located near the Lebanese-Syrian border and the Beirut-Damascus road at the Masnaa border crossing.

The militants’ advance toward the area was expected, given the stifling conditions they experienced in the Qalamoun outskirts due to the heavy snow. The militants have also been besieged and assaulted by Syrian aircrafts, as well as Syrian and Lebanese army artillery, Hezbollah posts, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).

The Zabadani area — extending from Yaboos, north of the Beirut-Damascus international road, 30 km away from the Masnaa border crossing, through the towns of Zabadani and Madaya, down to the Syrian town of Serghaya — faces central Bekaa from the west — from Anjar and Majdal Anjar through Qusaya and its outskirts and Ra’it while the town of Riyaq and its military airport lie behind it.

Thursday night, the militants began to advance in four-wheel-drive vehicles equipped with heavy machine guns, from an area called Fathat al-Janzirah toward the Qusaya outskirts, but the PFLP-GC fired artillery rounds from afar, forcing the attackers to flee and retreat. In conjunction with the progression toward the Qusaya outskirts, the militants attacked several Syrian army checkpoints in Kafir Yaboos and Yaboos, and al-Huwwa and Hamid checkpoints. A number of al-Nusra Front militants entered the two towns, but the army regained control in the past two days and launched a hunt for the militants, who fled to the barren areas.

On Tuesday, Syrian army aircraft and artillery continued to strike militant posts in the barren areas. Syrian sources on the ground told Al-Akhbar that the army arrested sleeper cells operating with al-Nusra Front in the two towns and killed a number of their leaders, as well as leaders of the Ahrar al-Sham Movement in an airstrike on Madaya.

According to the information available, the only passageway for the militants from the Qalamoun outskirts to the Syrian interior, from the south and east, is a road that leads to the city of Serghaya, south of the town of al-Tafil, which is visible from the “al-Khash’at hills,” supervised by Hezbollah from the “Ain al-Sa’ah” post. During the summer, the militants were unable to cross the road with their armored vehicles, but the winter fog allows them to do that.

While Zabadani and Madaya are currently controlled by the militants and besieged by the Syrian army, Serghaya has so far remained outside the circle of immediate fighting. The army is deployed near most of the town’s entrances, while opposition militants infiltrate its borders from Qalamoun. The local residents — who are split between supporting and opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — are hoping to keep the battles out of their town to protect their prolific production of apples and cherries. At the same time, the people of Madaya — who are heavily influenced by families and clans — are divided over the prospect of reaching a truce with the Syrian state, while the al-Nusra Front militants seek escalation.

Al-Akhbar learned that a confrontation occurred on Tuesday between local militants from the town and a number of al-Nusra elements in connection with the targeting of civilians on the main road to Madaya.

East of Zahle under threat

According to security sources, “there are several objectives behind the militants’ move toward Yaboos and Kafir Yaboos, such as threatening the Damascus-Beirut road, confusing the army and the forces supporting it, and creating a complex security situation in Majdal Anjar and east of Zahle similar to that in Ersal.”

“They seek to confuse the Lebanese army and threaten the Baalbek road and northern Bekaa, extending to central Bekaa and Mount Hermon,” the security sources said, in order to open new fronts as a means of avoiding the isolation they are suffering from most communities in Qalamoun, as well as the snow.

The Lebanese army has raised the level of alertness in the area in preparation for any emergency or possible infiltration attempts by militants fleeing from the Syrian army towards the Lebanese interior.

These security developments have affected more than 7,000 Syrian citizens, who live in three camps on the outskirts of the town of Kafarzabad, in addition to a camp located south of Rayak Air Base. Most of these families have been living in the area for 30 years. They work in its fields and live in tents. The situation significantly deteriorated when a number of Syrian refugees moved from Zabadani and the Damascus countryside to the camps at the beginning of the crisis in Syria.

According to Kafarzabad Mayor Saloum Saloum, “about 8,000 people were distributed over four camps, until the army closed down one of the camps (in Tallat al-Makhadah).” Although the camps have been in the area for a long time, the sources said that “the United Nations sees them as refugees and treats them accordingly, and has provided aid to them and registered their names in UN records.”

Since Sunday morning, the army has carried out raids on the three remaining camps: the Hamid, al-Najashi, and Ali al-Mohammed camps, in addition to raids in the area of Arab al-Mawali in the town of Kafarzabad, which is inhabited by Lebanese Arab al-Mawali citizens, and raids in the nearby area of Faour.

Lebanese security sources said that “the army on Monday asked the camp residents to evacuate the tents within 48 hours without specifying the destination, and threatened to demolish the tents by force.”

The sources added that “the army is trying not to clash with the inhabitants of the tents. But expanding the camps to the top of the mountain is not possible because of the situation, the raging battles, and the possible infiltration of militants into the camps, which would exacerbate the security situation in the area. The residents should understand the critical security situation.”

“The area is relatively safe. The army has a strong presence in several posts and locations. The Rayak Air Base is well protected, and the militants cannot penetrate the border in large numbers. Also, the Syrian army has strong positions on the other side of the border, in addition to posts for special units.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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