During military operations in western Qalamoun, the Syrian army closed the main supply border crossings for the armed groups in the countryside of Homs and Rif Dimashq that are linked to Lebanese territories. These actions were part of the military operation dubbed the Great Battle of Qalamoun, which began last winter and ended in the spring of 2014.
The west of Qalamoun remains in the spotlight, however, as the armed groups scattered between the rural areas of Arsal and Brital in Lebanese territory and al-Jibba, Hawsh Arab and Assal al-Ward in Syria are trying to get back to their strongholds in Qalamoun to reposition there.
With the onset of winter, attention began turning to eastern Qalamoun as, according to sources, this area was beginning to attract armed groups wandering in the Syrian desert. The region has turned into an assembly point, after first and foremost being a major crossing point for gunmen. Now, this geographical zone has become a barricaded area for militants, given its wide spaces and harsh terrain open to the countryside of Homs in the north and the desert in the east, not to mention the pathways leading to Iraq in the east and to Jordan in the south.
Military sources told As-Safir that a major military operation is underway in the region, whose heralds began to surface on Nov. 14, when the Syrian army took control of the Umm Ruman hillside to the northeast of Dumeir, overlooking the Damascus-Baghdad road.
A field commander told As-Safir that after controlling al-Saqi farms, near al-Nabak, the Syrian army has started looking toward the eastern Qalamoun area. "These farms used to serve as organizational bases for the distribution of humanitarian and material aid convoys to armed groups in the Homs countryside and Rif Dimashq," he said.
"This is why we started, about a month ago, to advance toward these points, and after heavy fighting we managed to seize control of many strategic hillsides including Umm Ruman," he added.
Easter Qalamoun is home to a variety of armed groups, including those fleeing the Syrian army from the villages in the eastern countryside of Homs in addition to the fleeing armed insurgents from Adra and Ghouta in Rif Dimashq.
According to sources, the region also includes groups from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (IS). The latter is seeking to attract militants who are not affiliated with any other group to strengthen its presence in the region, especially in the Palmyra mountain chain. There are also groups affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra located in the eastern mountains in the town of Nasiriyah and the Jayrud Mountains and ar-Ruhaybah.
However, the most significant base for the armed groups remains in Al-Batra' region, which serves as a triangle between Jayrud, Nasiriyah and ar-Ruhaybah.
The harsh and barren lands of this area serve as a natural barricade against strikes, which has rendered them the most important stronghold of armed groups, especially for Jaysh al-Islam, as some sources confirmed that senior leaders affiliated with this group are stationed in this area. Other sources confirm that Zahran Aloush, the commander of Jaysh al-Islam, is present there.
The field commander told As-Safir that given the difficulty of sending troops to this barren terrain, the Syrian army is currently focused on striking mountains and caves sheltering armed groups and on hitting the militants moving in the region.
The battles in eastern Qalamoun will not be easier than in the western part. The mountain cliffs, caves and mountain trails ought to be fully scouted, which is a hard mission for any army in the world.
According to observers, a wide scouting of this region would be reflected on the ground in the eastern countryside of Homs (which has recently been at the forefront of field developments). Most important, such scouting would sever the connection between eastern Qalamoun and the rest of the regions in eastern Ghouta.
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