Syria: Battle for Qalamoun May Be Felt in Lebanon

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The Syrian army is about to launch a battle to control Qalamoun, a town on the slopes of the east Lebanon mountains that has become an Islamist stronghold.

The Qalamoun battle is about to start, which will return Lebanon to the atmosphere that prevailed during the Qusair battle.

The harsh media and political campaign and the security threats that accompanied Hezbollah’s participation in the Qusair battle in May and June 2013 may soon be repeated when the Qalamoun battle starts.

The consequences of the Qalamoun battle, which has been on hold for months, may have already started. It is now certain that the Qalamoun villages, located on the slopes of the east Lebanon mountains, have become the headquarters of Syrian jihadist groups. Those groups have decided to launch a pre-emptive war on Hezbollah’s support base in the Lebanese interior by preparing car bombs and sending them to the southern suburbs of Beirut.

According to sources, there is information that a car has been loaded with explosives in Yabrud (which is in the Qalamoun region) and may cross into Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley via the Syrian towns of Qara or Falitah. Sources said that a search is underway for the car before it enters Lebanese territory.

Controlling Qalamoun was one of the objectives of the broad operation the Syrian army was preparing for the Damascus countryside and Ghouta last August. But the chemical weapons imbroglio delayed the operation. So Qalamoun became a refuge for the armed opposition, after many opposition fighters were forced to withdraw from east and west Ghouta as the Syrian army made progress there for two months.

The Qalamoun battle may have repercussions on the Lebanese interior because Liwa al-Islam, which is led by Zahran Alloush, has become the main opposition force on Lebanon’s eastern slopes in Arsal al-Ward, the Rankous Plain, and Hawsh al-Arab. That threat is serious because Alloush, who has set up his base of operations in the area, has returned from a visit to Saudi Arabia last week, where he met his financial and military authority, the director of Saudi intelligence Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

Bandar holds a strong military card with which to pressure the Lebanese interior: the deployment on the outskirts of the Bekaa of 3,000 to 5,000 Liwa al-Islam fighters and an armed battalion having 23 T-72 tanks.

According to a source in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the repercussions on Lebanon will not be confined to the usual security threats. A large number of fighters who retreated from Ghouta and who reassembled in Qalamoun may be forced to withdraw toward the Lebanese interior in large numbers if the Syrian army conducts a major operation in the region.

The source said that some armed groups are planning to withdraw in case they could not withstand the harsh mountain winter and take refuge in the rugged mountainous terrain.

Some opposition brigades, such as Liwa al-Haqq, which has more than a thousand fighters and is based in Yabrud, have opened supply lines with Salafist groups in Tripoli and sent one of its leaders to northern Lebanon to coordinate the defense of Qalamoun.

It not clear exactly when or where the battle will start. But the battle may be initiated by the Syrian army to prevent opposition fighters from transforming Qalamoun into an area that threatens the northern Bekaa and the Homs-Damascus highway.

The armed groups are regrouping in the region and are trying to reorganize themselves after they failed to control Ghouta, from which they intended to conduct operations on the Syrian army’s supply lines. They now want to spend the winter in safety in the Qalamoun mountains.

There has been an undeclared truce in the region. The Syrian army has not conducted extensive operations on Yabrud or Nabk, and the opposition has refrained from moving toward and threatening the Homs-Damascus road. Dignitaries and wealthy figures in Yabrud have secured an unspoken agreement to not attack the Homs-Damascus highway in return for a truce on their city.

The Qalamoun battle may start in the next few weeks or days by conducting massive operations against Nabk. An FSA official thinks it unlikely that the Syrian army, supported by Hezbollah, will conduct large operations in the region before they finish combing some areas in Ghouta and enter Moadamiya, Damascus. The opposition still controls areas in Ghouta, Arbin, Zamalka, Sakba, Hamouri, al-Shifouniya, Haza and Masraba, thanks to a complex network of tunnels.

A Syrian security official said that the army has for months been watching opposition activity in the Qalamoun mountains and how that area was transformed into a major armed opposition stronghold. He said that the Syrian army is preparing a large-scale military operation, whose start date he didn’t specify.

According to an FSA source, the “immigration” to Qalamoun comes at a time of increased differences between the FSA and the army of Islam. In fact, there is an undeclared war between them, resulting in a series of defeats for the opposition in recent weeks in towns south of Damascus. The quarrel is because of the increasing influence of the Islamists in Ghouta and armed operations in general, and the tendency of some FSA brigades to negotiate with the Syrian regime. There are also differences over the Geneva II conference.

FSA brigades, such as the Abu Musa al-Ash’ari, Tahrir al-Sham, al-Barra, Fath al-Sham and al-Tawhid, are withdrawing some of their elements from Ghouta and sending them to Qalamoun to prevent Alloush and his allied brigades from controlling that area alone, after the FSA found itself trapped between the Islamists and the regime.

Firas Bitar, a Syrian army captain who defected, heads the Abu Musa al-Ash’ari brigade. He intends to send a group of fighters to Rankous to prevent Zahran Alloush from controlling the area with his ally Assad al-Khatib, the head of the Qadisiyah brigade. According to an FSA source, Zahran Alloush removed almost all of his forces from Ghouta, his birthplace and hometown. That encouraged his rivals in the Douma Shura Council to remove Ghouta from under Alloush’s influence by forming the Council of Mujahideen, led by his rival Abu Subhi Taha.

The opposition groups in the area are against Liwa al-Islam establishing itself in Qalamoun. Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahfad al-Rasul, Kataeb al-Faruq and Shuhada Baba Amro are supportive of Liwa al-Islam. But an FSA source said that the Umawi Tha’r brigade is divided between supporters and opponents of Alloush. Those who oppose Alloush are the Qalamoun Hawks Brigades, led by Mazen Abu Abdo, the Internal Security Battalion, the Qalamoun Lions and Liwa al-Tawhid in Qalamoun.

The source said that these battalions and brigades will not participate in the Qalamoun battle. They didn’t participate in the Ghouta battle for fear that the radical Islamist groups would win and because they have deep differences with the jihadist groups. But the source said that it is unlikely that these groups alone can achieve victory over the Syrian army.

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Found in: syrian crisis, syrian army, qusair, liwa al-tawhid, lebanon-syria border, jabhat al-nusra, islamists, hezbollah, free syrian army, damascus battle, bekaa valley
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