Skip to main content

Syria’s War of Tunnels

An exclusive report from Qusair.
A picture taken on June 8, 2013 shows Syrian army soldiers gathering ammunition from a tunnel in the village of Buweida, north of Qusayr, in Syria's central Homs province. Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have now seized all of the Qusayr area in central Syria, state television reported, as troops overran the last rebel bastion in the area. AFP PHOTO / STR        (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

The "War of Tunnels" is probably the most suitable name for the war fought in Syria's strategic region of Qusair, on the border with Lebanon. In each city, town and village, dozens of hideouts and underground routes have been found by the Syrian army and Hezbollah fighters.

"These tunnels were used to connect alleys with each other, exit routes and hideouts, snipers' shooting posts and weapons storage," Major Abdo, a Syrian army officer, told Al-Monitor. The tunnels were under almost every house and building. I entered one in one house, and at the end of it I found myself in the living room of an adjacent house. According to Abdo, "These tunnels took them a lot of time to plan, dig and connect." 

Many of the fighters I met in the area spoke about the rebel snipers who used such tunnels to shoot at pro-regime fighters during the first days of the war.

"No one expected they'd use such a strategy. They'll wait for the fighters to get closer, then shoot them in the feet, and when the fighter kneels they'll finish him with a shot in the head," said Fidaa, a Hezbollah fighter who took part in the attack. He told me that in a day or two, it was clear: "One sniper was capable of stopping our advance for a day or two."

After the dramatic fall of Qusair and the rebels' retreat, there were expectations that a fierce battle would be fought for two towns around Qusair — Dabaa and Eastern Bouaida — but later on, the Syrian army entered them with no remarkable resistance. Everyone was asking: Where did the fighters go? The answer didn't take much time to appear.

In the open field between Dabaa and Eastern Bouaida, hundreds of vehicles were found, including motorcycles, cars and four-wheel-drive trucks with 23mm machine guns mounted on them — even a 57mm artillery gun. It was clear that the rebel fighters and their families had arrived at a point where they had to take only light weapons and sacrifice the rest. Al-Monitor was one of the first to arrive after the battle, and we had the chance to go around and try to understand how the fighters and accompanying civilians fled. Once again, the answer was tunnels.

Just meters away from the cars, several openings became visible in the ground. They were all at least four or five meters deep and connected to a huge network of water pipes built years ago by the government. 

"These pipes connect the countryside of Qusair to the city of Homs, and areas in southeastern Homs province not very far from Damascus countryside," said Abdo, who added that the militants had found themselves in a hopeless situation with no other choice but to flee. Abdo added that he expects the fighters to reappear in the countryside of Damascus.

What's obvious is that most of the fighters who survived the fight in Qusair succeeded in getting out of the area, but we also saw that fighters in other towns and villages in the region left their bases for the fleeing points days before the army and Hezbollah entered.

Where will the next major conflict be, everyone is asking now; will it be Aleppo, or the countryside of Damascus? The regime is now back on the offensive, much more confident and firmly backed by its allies. As for the opposition, almost the opposite is true.

Ali Hashem is an Arab journalist serving as Al Mayadeen news network's chief correspondent. Until March 2012, Ali was Al Jazeera's war correspondent, and prior to that was a senior journalist at the BBC. Ali wrote for several Arab newspapers, including the Lebanese daily As Safir, Egyptian dailies Al-Masry Al-Youm and Aldostor, the Jordanian daily Alghad and also contributed to The Guardian. On Twitter: @alihashem_tv

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Free

The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.

Free

What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing
Expert

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to pro.support@al-monitor.com and we'll onboard your team.

What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial