Zabadani battle rages on

A strategic battle is underway in Syria’s Zabadani and it continues to have an impact on Damascus and the Lebanese border, which seems to be threatened now more than ever.

al-monitor People look at damaged buildings at Zabadani, Aug. 8, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Shaam News Network/Handout.

Topics covered

syrian conflict, syrian civil war, qalamoun, lebanon border, ghouta, damascus, bekaa, arsal

Jul 6, 2015

The battle underway in the Syrian city of Zabadani is not an ordinary one. Its repercussions upon Lebanon — as well as Syria, of course — are beyond being limited to a mere isolated skirmish in the open conflict that has endured for years with armed factions that threaten Damascus, Beirut and beyond.

A source knowledgeable about the battlefield situation told As-Safir that the push by Syrian army units and Hezbollah forces inside Zabadani after almost four months of under-the-radar battles was deeper than anticipated, leading so far to losses that were lower than expected.

Battlefield sources also added that seizing control of the strategic city of Zabadani adjacent to the Lebanese border and close to the Damascus-Beirut international highway will be complete as soon as the city falls under total suppressive fire control, as its supply lines are severed, with the armed factions therein losing an important stronghold that constituted a weak point threatening the security of the Syrian capital. The source continued to state that, in curbing the Qalamoun threat, the battle for Zabadani was a turning point in the war with armed and takfiri factions, which, according to the source, constituted one of the severest blows in the battle for Qalamoun, that would have a direct impact on the battles for east and west Ghouta, located on the perimeter of the capital, Damascus.

Large quantities of arms and funds were ferried from Arsal to Zabadani through al-Toufail, ultimately reaching the two Ghoutas — which brings back to mind the crisis cell bombing three years ago, and the subsequent determination that the C4 explosives used therein to assassinate Syrian military commanders were transported from Lebanon to Zabadani and finally to Damascus.

Zabadani, where estimates indicate that between 1,000 and 1,500 gunmen are entrenched — among them many who withdrew there after previous battles in Rankous and Asal al-Ward — not only greatly contributed to threatening the Syrian capital, but also the Lebanese border strip, as well as the vital international highway that links the two countries.

The source clarified that “while the battle for Qalamoun may be open-ended, the battle for Zabadani takes on a different meaning due to the need to remove it from the equation in the Syrian conflict along the Lebanese border” in order to bolster defenses around Damascus and put an end to the extortion practiced by insurgents who cut off the water supply of Damascus residents.

The knowledgeable source also indicated that following their successful breakthrough into the Jamiyat neighborhood, Syrian army and Hezbollah forces reached the perimeter of Al-Hoda Mosque in the past few hours, without indicating that the battle was over.

Furthermore, battlefield sources said that the danger of the city of Zabadani lay in the fact that it extended geographically from the Syrian south toward Deir al-Ashayer and the countryside of Quneitra, which gave militants the ability to disrupt the Damascus highway and threaten the capital from the south through Qatna al-Madamiya, as well as from the north and west, through the city of al-Tell.

According to battlefield sources, from the very first day of battles, the Syrian army and Hezbollah managed to isolate Zabadani from its environs and Qalamoun from the north, as well as cut off its supply line toward Serghaya and Ain Houl toward Qalamoun, through a quick onslaught emanating from Bloudan on the east and Tell el-Sendyan in the village of Maadar on the north side, as troops converged and met in the center at the Kefr Amer Heights (1,411 meters [4,629 feet] above sea level), which overlook the heart of Zabadani city from the north.

The same sources added that Hezbollah and the Syrian army utilized different tactics and combat strategies in the battle for Zabadani, whereby they relied on tightening the front line around the city as they gradually advanced and took control of areas held by the militants.

Insurgents are spread throughout the city of Zabadani, its surroundings and orchards over a land area of 25 square kilometers [nearly 10 square miles], where several factions hold positions, such as the Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of the Levant), considered to be the largest faction, followed by Jabhat al-Nusra and a number of Islamic State (IS)-affiliated groups, some members of which had fled from the previous years’ battles of Qusair and Qalamoun. In addition, reports indicated new cases of desertion, whereby in excess of 200 militants fled toward the Madaya highlands of Qalamoun.

In that context, the Syrian army announced that it now controlled the Sultana neighborhood east of the city, and indicated that “dozens of terrorists had been killed or wounded in the attack.” Furthermore, on the day before last, army units completed their control of the al-Tell castle west of Zabadani, mere hours after military operations began.

Moreover, Reuters quoted militants as saying that “over 2,000 gunmen from various factions, including al-Nusra, planted mines and fortified their positions inside the city prior to the beginning of anticipated fierce street battles.” Ahrar al-Sham militant Abdullah Enid added in this regard, “Our morale is high with the help of God. They shall not enter the city except on our martyred bodies.”

A battlefield source further explained to As-Safir that the Zabadani battle was a key contact point along two fronts: the battle for Qalamoun and west Damascus. He opined that completing control over main areas of the Qalamoun would lead to the establishment of an integrated defensive line along the border with Lebanon, particularly toward the Bekaa. The west Damascus front, on the other hand, would result in the cutting or besieging of insurgent supply lines, which, in the coming months, would affect the progress of battles in west Ghouta.

Heading right, along the international highway from Damascus toward the Lebanese border, leads to Bloudan, Zabadani and Madaya, while heading straight leads travelers to the Lebanese border. Thus, the geography of the locale reflects the importance of the battle for Zabadani, which would allow the protection of the international highway towards Lebanon at the crossing points of Jdeidat Yabous and Masnaa, as well as serve to protect the overlapping areas between the two countries from Serghaya to Zabadani along the eastern Syrian side of the border, and Nabi Sheet, Qosaya and Anjar on the Lebanese western side.

Before reaching Madaya, which bifurcates toward Bloudan and Zabadani, battles along the right side of the highway take on a different dimension in Wadi Barada, Ain al-Fijah, Deir Muqaran, Deir Qanun and Baqeen, where the war for potable water is an essential part of military strategy. The importance of the area thus lies in the Ain al-Fijah spring that supplies Damascus with potable water, which was the scene of combat between the Syrian army and insurgent factions that tried to cut off the water supply for the purpose, as their statements claimed, of pressuring the Syrian army into stopping its shelling of the Zabadani. In addition, the Baqeen water source is a key water tributary where the bottling factory for Baqeen mineral water is located. The same battlefield source added to As-Safir that the Syrian army’s total control over the city of Zabadani would mean the total collapse of the supply route used by insurgents in Wadi Barada, as well their complete encirclement.

The battlefield source further expounded on the importance of Zabadani and Qalamoun’s border regions for the two countries, by reminiscing about the battle fought, in 1982, by the Syrian army against Israeli occupation forces in the Bekaa’s Sultan Yacoub region. That was a battle that aimed to control the international highway and advance toward the Syrian border.

The Syrian army’s control over Zabadani also shuts down a number of illegal border crossings between Lebanon and Syria, due to the fact that the town overlooks a range of hills and rugged trails between the two countries.

Despite the start of reconciliation efforts in several neighboring villages, Zabadani’s fate was left hanging before the intensification of the siege around it, complemented by artillery shelling, airstrikes, and dozens of military operations aimed at isolating and besieging it, before ultimately storming it — all of which led to the displacement of its 50,000 residents to neighboring areas.

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