MADAYA, Syria — The rebel-held town of Zabadani is witnessing the heaviest period of fighting since February 2012, as rebels seek to break the regime’s siege of the town. The blockade imposed on Zabadani by the regime had been preventing the entry of basic materials for more than a month. Phone communication was cut, electricity interrupted and some women were arrested in the area in early July, according to local sources in the region and pro-regime websites such as Aksalser.
This prompted rebel fighters, who united under the name of the “United Army of Zabadani,” on Aug. 23 to target several regime checkpoints spread on the road between Bloudan and Zabadani, northeast of the city, to ease the pressure on civilians. A rebel spokesman in Zabadani told Al-Monitor via Skype that the town was surrounded by more than 100 checkpoints, and that mines had been spread in many areas around Zabadani to prevent anyone from entering or exiting.
We arrived at the regime-held town of Bukain — 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) from Zabadani. We heard the loud shelling of Zabadani amid clear anxiety and fear of potential spillover.
Opposition activist Mohammed Suleiman, a college student who escaped Zabadani to Bukain in the morning of Aug. 27, told Al-Monitor that there are three checkpoints in Bloudan Mountain, east of Zabadani city: the second-point barrier, the advanced-point barrier and the Karazat barrier, all of which have been targeted. He said, “The strategic importance of these checkpoints lies in the ability to monitor the entire city, which makes them vulnerable to artillery and sniper fire that is continuously targeting the people of Zabadani.”
Zabadani lies in a valley between mountains: Bloudan Mountain is to the east and Lebanon's mountains are to the west. Rebel fighters took the Zaatoot checkpoint and targeted the Shallah checkpoint, which are located inside Zabadani, to the eastern side near Bloudan. The first three checkpoints are inside the city of Bloudan in the mountains, which overlooks Zabadani. The checkpoints of Zaatout and Shallah are thus considered to be the link between the eastern and western checkpoints
We tried to move closer toward Zabadani with the help of a journalist who works with state media, and saw thick smoke covering the sky from the heavy and continuous shelling from warplanes. We were stopped and asked to return at a Syrian army checkpoint, but we were able — after tough negotiations — to obtain information on whether rebel fighters were really targeting the checkpoints, and if they were in control. An officer at the checkpoint told Al-Monitor, “Each and every one of our checkpoints covers three other checkpoints, and the mountainous nature of the region contributes to preventing insurgents from being concentrated at the checkpoints that they attack and whose equipment they steal.” The officer added that the attacks on the checkpoints do not necessarily mean that the rebels control them.
The Syrian news agency SANA reported on Aug. 30: “One of our armed forces troops carried out an accurate operation in Mahata district in Zabadani, destroying a car fitted with a heavy machine gun. They were able to kill terrorist Ahmed al-Maghribi, leader of the so-called special tasks brigade in the terrorist Islamic Front organization, and other terrorists from Jabhat al-Nusra including the Lebanese national Rashid al-Rifai and the Saudi national Suhaib al-Abdan, an explosives expert.”
After its checkpoints were targeted, government forces intensified their overflights and explosive barrels in the region. "Zabadani is being bombed at the rate of six barrels per day, and there are supportive military troops brought by the army via Serghaya [north of Zabadani] to support its positions amid continuous shelling coming from the checkpoints surrounding Zabadani,” Suleiman said.
A Zabadani resident told Al-Monitor via Skype that hundreds of residents from al-Sheelah, al-Mahatta and Zaatout — where the targeted checkpoints are situated — fled to the Inshaat neighborhood on the road to Bloudan, east of Zabadani, and to al-Mamoura region on the road to Bukain south of Zabadani — all regions controlled by the Syrian regime.
The resident said that all the displaced people were women and children who were able to pass through the regime's checkpoints. However, the men moved west of the city since they feared arrest in case they leave the city.
On Aug. 24, the regime proposed a truce to rebel fighters through civil society groups in the reconciliation committee of the Bloudan area, according to Suleiman. He said, “The truce was rejected because the regime is still using explosive barrels as its soldiers continue to shell civilians.”
Two weeks after the truce was rejected, regime forces continue to bomb the region in a bid to restore its position at the Shallah checkpoint and secure its surroundings. On Sept. 5, regime forces targeted Zabadani with barrel bombs.
After establishing a truce with the regime in April, the region was still being raided by barrel bombs, as well as ongoing sniper operations targeting civilians at the checkpoints in the Bloudan Mountain, which overlooks the town.
Al-Monitor met with residents who fled to the town of Baqin. They said that in July the army had arrested a number of women because of their family ties to some of the fighters in the region. This fueled resentment among residents toward the rebel fighters, as they considered them responsible for the arrests and for pushing the regime to bomb civilian areas, while highlighting the rebels’ failure to break the siege on the town. Matters worsened as the regime threatened to storm Zabadani if the fighters did not hand themselves over, especially after seizing control over neighboring villages — including the towns of Rankous and Kara — in the eastern mountains. Rebel fighters responded by launching the operation on the Syrian army checkpoints around the town.
It seems, however, that this operation has not achieved its main objective, which was to decrease artillery shells — which had been launched from these checkpoints — toward the west of Zabadani. Capturing the checkpoints has not made it safer for civilians or rebel fighters to leave the region, since it is still being targeted by the Syrian army. However, this might make it easier for rebel fighters who are based on the eastern side of the Bloudan Mountain to move toward the city of Rankous.
Rebel fighters have controlled Zabadani for over two years, but most of its residents live in nearby villages and towns such as Madaya and Bloudan. As the fighting continues, there appears to be little hope of these residents returning to their homes anytime soon.
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