After 315 days, Lebanon remains without a president. The Ain el-Tineh meeting ended as parties emphasized the need to adhere to dialogue as the Easter holiday starts. Yet the unfolding events in the area between Arsal and its hinterland in the Anti-Lebanon mountains, and between Zabadani and the western mountain range in Rif Dimashq [in Syria], remain the focus of those following the situation there.
The fate of Hussein Seifudin from the town of Hosh al-Rafika, who was kidnapped from Arsal at the beginning of the week, remains in the hands of his captors, the Islamic State (IS) militants and the people of Arsal. While the former has been escalating the situation, the latter continue to insist on freeing him in return for an exclusive release of the kidnapped Syrians in the town. In the meantime, the flaring front in Zabadani has relatively calmed, “as the military operations that kicked off about two weeks ago achieved their target,” according to an informed security source in the area.
Yesterday’s [April 3] confrontations in Zabadani ended with the Syrian army and Hezbollah’s control over the area’s western mountain range, thus achieving three major goals: securing the Damascus-Beirut highway permanently; preventing militants from infiltrating Lebanon from Anjar; and tightening the military grip on the hills overlooking Zabadani city, cracking down on the militants’ movement.
The Syrian army also managed to seize control of Radar Hill at the end of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains on the border between Syria and Lebanon, after dealing a blow to Jabhat al-Nusra, killing a number of its militants including the area’s commander.
On the Qalamoun front, the Syrian army and its allies controlled the hills of Hamra and Shaaba al-Khasha in the Flita desolate areas. These hills separate Arsal’s hinterlands from Flita’s.
This was the result of clashes with Jabhat al-Nusra, which withdrew from Hankal Hill following heavy fire fighting.
Controlling these hills “will help secure Flita on one hand, and detecting the militants’ movement in a large part of Arsal's desolate areas, on the other,” according to the informed security sources.
Negotiations on Seifudin
Ali al-Hujairi, Arsal’s mayor, told As-Safir that IS informed him that the group does not wish to negotiate with him regarding the release of Seifudin. “IS asked for $150,000 and three trucks loaded with supplies for the release of Seifudin,” Hujairi said.
The people of Arsal, however, are determined not to pay anything for the captive’s release. “We will stand our ground from now on,” the people said, according to Hujairi.
As-Safir also learned that IS approached another of Arsal’s mayors to negotiate the terms of Seifudin's release. The mayor came back with good news that IS intended to release him in the following hours. A well-informed source said that IS inquired about the town’s stance and asked about the situation’s details.
Arsal’s people gave the kidnappers a few hours to release Seifudin, while the town’s wise men have been trying to avoid any confrontation with the militants, which “no one could predict the outcome.”
One of Arsal’s dignitaries told As-Safir that the people of the Syrian town of Kara captured Osama Warda, one of Seifudin's kidnappers, who told them that “there is nothing he can do as the issue is now in IS' hands.”
Those following up on the situation note that there has been a competition between Jabhat al-Nusra and IS to win over the people of Arsal. In fact, Jabhat al-Nusra handing over of the body of the martyr Ali al-Bazal occurs within this context and does not relate to the ongoing negotiations on the kidnapped soldiers.
It should also be noted that the town of Bazaliah held a mass funeral yesterday [April 3] for the martyr Sergeant Ali al-Bazal.
Details of the Zabadani operation
Informed security sources told As-Safir that the mission to control the western mountain range in Zabadani was carried out through three axes:
First, through the northeast side of the Kfir Yabous village, the closest to Lebanon after Jdeidat Yabous, all the way to Shrin, Shir al-Taka and Shir al-Joba, overlooking Zabadani city. All these areas have come under control.
Second, from the north of the Maadar town and the adjacent hills down to Dahrat al-Howa — the strategic stronghold hill of Jabhat al-Nusra. Most of the militants have been killed after after destroying their sites.
Third, from Bir Kasoor and Ain al-Ramleh down to Fathat al-Janzir and Dahr al-Baydar, where many of the militants who were deployed there have been killed. Also, one of their tanks has been destroyed.
Accordingly, sources said that the Zabadani “has become secured from the eastern side from the highland of Ayat al-Kursi, and from the western side, from Dahrat al-Howa, Shir al-Joba, the Syriatel Tower, all the way to Dahr al-Baydar, Fathat al-Janzir, Bir Kasoor and Ain al-Ramleh. Zabadani is now within the range of Syrian army fire and its allies, therefore movement of the insurgents there has been relatively paralyzed.
Mohammed Youssef al-Maghribi, known as “the griffin,” a commander from Kfir Yaboos, and another commander, Abdullah Ammar, were killed along with 13 other Jabhat-al-Nusra-affiliated insurgents who tried to infiltrate to Dahrat al-Howa, and Shir al-Joba to the side of Zabadani.
A military expert in the region noted that the militants in Zabadani’s mountains range and in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains have recently shifted from offense to defense. They have been focusing on digging trenches and tunnels, setting up bunkers and barricades, “perhaps in anticipation of the battle of the spring.”
“No field commander could tell when is ‘zero hour.’ The battle will take place but its time is known to the key stakeholders only,” the military expert said.
The people of Arsal have also called on the Lebanese army and Hezbollah’s leadership to make the necessary arrangements for them to reach their orchards in the hinterland that encloses 5 million fruit-giving trees, to take care of their agricultural business with the onset of spring.
The people’s demands come within the context of the severe economic crisis affecting the town at all levels.
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