ِApril 7, 2014
On March 16, Syrian government and Hezbollah forces announced that they had successfully uprooted rebel fighters from Yabroud, the last major opposition-held town in Syria’s strategic Qalamoun mountain range. In the weeks since, pro-Assad forces have advanced west of Yabroud, forcing opposition fighters to flee from rebel-held towns such as al-Fleita and Ras al-Ma’ara.
While most rebel forces have left the area, some fighters have continued fighting to regain lost territory. Jabhat a-Nusra spokesman Abdallah Azzam a-Shami announced Monday that rebel fighters had mounted a suicide attack and ground operation to “demolish Hezbollah and [Iranian] Republican Guard strongholds” in the town of Ras al-Ain to Yabroud’s southwest.
“There are some groups that are trying to regain control of the towns” in western Qalamoun, says Rawad, a 22-year-old Qalamoun-based activist and spokesman for the pro-opposition SMART News Agency. He tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad Ali al-Haji Ali that rebel fighters have lost control of their main supply road between Qalamoun and eastern Lebanon, but still hold on to two alternate routes.
Q: Given the ongoing battles in Qalamoun and especially since the regime has taken control of Yabroud, where have the rebels relocated?
Let me start with when the regime first took control of Yabroud. Most of the brigades left the city and headed west to the town of al-Fleita, where there were fierce clashes. Other brigades headed to Ras al-Ain and Ras al-Ma’ara. There also the brigades that lost hope and returned to areas elsewhere in Qalamoun like Rankous and Asal al-Ward.
Currently almost 80% of the brigades have left to towns southwest of Qalamoun, especially since the regime took control of al-Fleita, Ras al-Ain, and Ras al-Ma’ra. But there are some groups that are trying to regain control of the towns, which is why we have seen clashes recently. The regime still hasn’t secured its rule in these areas.
There are a number of brigades still in Qalamoun, including Jabhat a-Nusra and the Islamic Front’s Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar a-Sham. There is also the Saraya Khalid bin al-Waleed brigade and a number of independent armed groups.
Q: Do rebels have a new strategy in Qalamoun after having lost Yabroud?
There was a counterattack this past Sunday in an area between the towns of Ras al-Ain and Bakha, resulting in the deaths of nearly 20 regime and Hezbollah soldiers in addition to killing the [Iranian] Republican Guard’s Leader of Operations. The Islamic Front, Saraya Khalid bin al-Waleed and Jabhat a-Nusra participated, but it was not a full-fledged battle. There are also a number of plans that might be executed in the next few days, but they are classified.
Q: How would you describe Hezbollah’s ongoing role in Qalamoun? And are there any routes still open between Qalamoun and Eastern Lebanon?
Hezbollah has taken the leading role in the battle for Qalamoun, the regime is only providing them with artillery cover. Qalamoun is very important for Hezbollah, because it borders Lebanon.
There is one road connecting Lebanon and Qalamoun that is very well hidden but rough, and another that is easier to travel on but less strategic. The rebels use a road that connects the Lebanese town of Arsal with towns in northwestern Qalamoun and connects them with southern towns, because the main road has been cut off.
Q: A number of pro-regime media outlets have said that civilians are beginning to return to Yabroud. Can you comment on this?
Yes, we have seen the same thing in Qalamoun cities like Qara and Nabek. After pro-Assad forces enter these cities, they ravage them with stealing and looting and then when they’re almost done they start bringing civilians back. But the people returning to Yabroud have been limited to women and non-fighting age men.
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