The Qalamoun battle made the headlines. It was deemed a battle that would be of great importance in the ongoing war between the Syrian regime and the opposition, one that would have significant repercussions on the course of the conflict that has been plaguing the country for more than 30 months now. These reports were made weeks — even months — ago, yet the great battle has not started. The Syrian army made progress a couple of days ago toward Qara, north of Qalamoun. Does this mean that the battle has already started, or that it is on the verge of beginning?
In light of these pressing questions, and being a journalist who already visited this region, I decided to visit it again to dig deeper into Qalamoun’s social, geographic, demographic, political and military aspects.
The Arsal Mountains are the gate to Qalamoun. As winter draws near, these mountains witness major operations of wood and diesel smuggling. Opposition battalions protect and monitor the roads.
The first surprising thing in Qalamoun is the vast opposition-controlled areas. I walked more than 80 kilometers (50 miles) and did not come across one regime checkpoint. Qalamoun includes more than 20 towns, chief among them Yabrud, Qara, Nabk, Assal, Wared and Rankos, and is home to more than a million residents.
Last year, I went to Qalamoun, and it was quite difficult to move. We would travel at night through the mountains on horseback, or walk along military roads. Today, however, the scene has changed. We now use cars to cut through the vast distances and easily move between villages and towns. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has managed to remove more than 40 regime checkpoints. Chief among these are: the Fakhookh checkpoint, which connects the Barada Valley with Qalamoun; the famous National Hospital checkpoint in the town of Rankos; and the Maaloula checkpoint, which was removed by Jabhat al-Nusra a couple of weeks ago. The Mazabel checkpoint is the only checkpoint left in the village of Halbun despite the opposition's repeated attempts to strike it, as well as a recent strike by Jabhat al-Nusra.
The opposition now controls about 70% of the Qalamoun region, while the regime only controls the international road and adjacent areas such as Kotaifah, Saidnaya, Hafir, Badda, Deir Attiya and Jayrud.
In Qalamoun, the opposition has clearly become organized, as about 100 people have been killed after the targeting of the Khalid bin Walid mosque in Rankos.
As we moved from Halbun to Rankos, we were stopped by a checkpoint set up by a group affiliated with the Ghuraba al-Sham Brigade in the farms. They inspected the car and asked for our identity cards. My driver handed him his identity card. He was asked which battalion he belonged to, and responded that he belonged to Jaysh al-Islam. We then waited for a few minutes while they contacted the leadership of the brigade in the region. Special security measures are currently being taken, especially on Fridays, in order to avoid further explosions.
More interestingly, the level of organization among some brigades has increased. For example, the Qadisiyya Brigade, which is one of the most influential in Rankos, issued special identity cards for its members, just like many other brigades. Mohammed Khatib, a media official for the brigade, said, “It is very difficult to penetrate us in this place.”
We met with Qadisiyya Brigade Chief of Staff Abu Wasim. He spoke about the sensitivity of the situation in Rankos and its environs. This town sums up the demographic reality in Qalamoun, as it is surrounded by several villages inhabited by Christian families such as Saidnaya, Mneen and Maaloula: “Our relationship with our fellow Christians has been good throughout history. Just like us, they were suffering from the regime. With the start of the revolution, most of them were in favor of reform, but the situation has changed today, they are now loyal to the regime after it managed to intimidate them into fearing us.”
“The Yabrud area is mixed. No attack on Christians has occurred there since the beginning of the revolution until now,” said another leader in the Ahrar al-Sham Brigade.
The military commander took me to the national hospital, which was one of the most important Syrian army barracks. Once at the top of the hospital, one can see several villages below, such as Saidnaya, Hafir, Badda, Talfita and Mneen.
“Look at the Cherubim monastery on top of the mountain in the town of Saidnaya. Look at the cannons holed up on the front hill. There are a lot of snipers who are close to the monastery. We can target it, but the problem is that the regime will use this and start saying that we are targeting Christians and minorities, as happened a few weeks ago in Maaloula,” Abu Wassim told me.
The most prominent opposition factions found in Qalamoun — their number is estimated at 20,000 fighters — are the free army battalions (about 5,000); foremost among them is the Tahrir al-Sham Brigade led by Capt. Firas al-Bitar.
Groups in the area also include Jaysh al-Islam, led by Zahran Alwash (nearly 5,000 fighters); Ahrar al-Sham (4,000 fighters); Jabhat al-Nusra; the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (1,000 fighters); Ghuraba al-Sham (1,000 fighters); the Maghaweer al-Qusair battalion, which consists of fighters coming from Qusair (nearly 2,000 fighters); and the Qadisiyya Brigade (500 fighters), in addition to the small brigades and battalions in a number of areas.
Asked about the battle for Qalamoun, a number of battalion leaders told us that the surveillance teams have not detected any mobilization by Hezbollah or the regime that would indicate that the battle is imminent in Qalamoun. “Nevertheless, we are ready for a battle,” they said. They agreed that the battle, if it takes place, would be very difficult for both sides. The Qalamoun area is mountainous, bitterly cold, and the attackers’ conditions are more difficult than those of the defenders. One of them said: The triangle battle that they talk about, which stretches from Zabadani, Rankos, to Arsal, is only present in the media. The regime and Hezbollah know well that they cannot break into Qalamoun.
If the battles take place, they will be in specific towns, and will not be extensive. Abu Wassim, commander in chief of the Qadisiyya Brigade, did not rule out the possibility that Hezbollah might advance a little and engage in limited battles in the mountains in order to secure some Lebanese villages. The possibility of an extensive battle needs many preparations. The reality on the ground, geographically and militarily, suggests that once the battle erupts, it will last for months, and the Syrian regime and Hezbollah will not be able to control the region, Abu Wassim said. “For us, it is a battle of life and death. Qalamoun is the revolution’s lung in Damascus, its countryside and Homs. Its fall would set off a domino effect whereby all these areas would fall,” he said.
If the battle breaks out, the engagements would be on four axes, according to the opposition leaders:
- The first would be the Mazabel checkpoint in the town of Halbun so as to control the road linking Wadi Barada to Qalamoun.
- The second would advance toward the village of Hosh Arab and Jubb’adin, where the regime will seek to control the hill of Jubb’adin, so that the center of Qalamoun is under its range of fire.
- The third axis will be in the town of Hared, near the Zabadani and Bloudan.
- The fourth axis is expected to be in Nabk, Qara and Yabrud (a battle for securing the international road).
In Qalamoun, life is quiet and normal. There are no confrontations or battles, and the status quo is clear between the Syrian army and the opposition. Most of the rebels’ camps are far from the regime’s barracks. The regime is no longer resorting to air bombardments. Any assault considered by the Syrian army in the town of Qalamoun would require an extensive plan. Abu Wassim said: “Last year the regime tried to regain control of Rankos more than once. It mobilized dozens of tanks and could not enter the city. How can it manage to do so now since we have become stronger and more organized? Particularly since we have taken over 32 weapons warehouses in the town of Mouhin."
Asked about the battle, a field leader from Ahrar al-Sham Brigade said many factors determine the course, size and timing of the battle.
“First are the complications on the ground (large areas and surface relief), and the strength of the opposition in terms of equipment, number of fighters and organization. Any attack needs a broad and comprehensive campaign and will cause the regime heavy losses.
“Second, the regime fears that we would cut off the international road between Damascus and Homs in Qara and Nabk. We do not target this road so that the regime does not bombard the villages, particularly since they turned into shelters. Yet, if the battle breaks out, we will certainly cut the road off.
“Third, the regime is preoccupied with the battles south of Damascus and in West Ghouta. For the regime, the military priority goes to securing the capital. Yet, it may advance in some of the Qalamoun areas to recover part of its respect, particularly since we took over large weapons warehouses in Mouhin.
“Fourth, the regime is waiting for the outcomes of the Geneva II negotiations. It does not want to engage in a big battle in Qalamoun causing it to be responsible for the failure of the Geneva II conference in front of the international community. In my opinion, the battle will take place, because most of the battalions on the ground do not agree on Geneva II, and therefore the coalition cannot ignore them.
“I guess that the big battle for Qalamoun has not started yet, and there are two objectives for what is taking place in Qara.
“First is pushing the armed opposition to be on the defensive after it was on the offensive. Over the past weeks, the Islamist battalions have targeted a number of locations in Qara and Nabk, and controlled the village of Sadad in Homs and ammunition warehouses in Mouhin.
“Second is an attempt by the Syrian regime to feel the pulse of the gunmen in Qalamoun, and that of the international and regional [communities], to disclose their ability to endure a big battle such as [the battle for] Qalamoun.”
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