February 13, 2014
A string of 17 air raids Wednesday marked the start of a renewed campaign by the Syrian government to seize the town of Yabroud, 75 kilometers north of Damascus near Syria’s western border with Lebanon.
In November and December of last year, the Syrian government made major advances in the strategic Qalamoun mountain range, which contains rebel smuggling routes into Lebanon. Included within Qalamoun is a key segment of the highway linking Damascus with Homs, and the regime’s Alawite towns and villages further north on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
Over three weeks of the first offensive, government and Hezbollah forces seized control of the towns of Qara, Deir Attiyeh and Nabek, all of which lie north of Yabroud along the Damascus-Homs highway. Yabroud, however, has remained fully under rebel control, making it the last opposition holdout in Qalamoun.
Successive government airstrikes pounded Yabroud Wednesday.
Photo courtesy of Qalamoun Media Center.
Syria Direct’s Osama Abu Zaid spoke with Amar, a 23-year-old spokesperson of the Qalamoun Media Center, about the regime’s renewed push for Yabroud and why he believes rebels are in a strong position to repel the government’s offensive.
Q. What has happened in Qalamoun on Wednesday?
The battle began in earnest today. The last several weeks have witnessed a major escalation in a number of areas, most importantly Yabroud, which is the FSA’s main base in the Qalamoun region.
The regime has thrown its weight into occupying Qalamoun since seizing Nabek, Deir Attiyeh and Qara.
Q. How would you describe daily life in Yabroud? How are the people coping with the increasing threats from Hezbollah?
Civilians across Syria have become accustomed to the atmosphere of war. For months, the regime and Hezbollah have loomed over Yabroud, with the battle approaching.
In light of that, the [threats] from Hezbollah seemed normal and has not caused great panic among the civilians. However, the barbaric bombing campaign Assad’s forces has begun, and before that the shelling, which paved the way for the battle, had caused displacement and great fear.
Q. You said the battle in Yabroud has begun. Who is attacking Yabroud: Hezbollah or the regime?
It seems that the campaign’s central goal is to storm and seize Yabroud. As for who is involved, I think the land forces are composed of elements from Hezbollah, Assad’s forces and the [loyalist militia] Popular Committees. But we haven’t heard definitive news until now because of the explosion in fighting and because we haven’t been able to identify or count the dead.
Q. Where are the battles focused? Do rebels have enough military power to combat government troops?
Yes, there are thousands of fighters capable of repelling the regime’s campaign around Yabroud, from the areas of al-Qastal, Jarajeer, the [Damascus-Homs] highway and Rima, where the fighting has centered.
The fighting groups include Jabhat a-Nusra, Ahrar a-Sham, Tahrir a-Sham, the 11th Brigade, the Qalamoun Liberation Front, the Ahfad al-Rusoul, the Sunni Lions and the al-Qusayr Brigade. There are others, but these are the most prominent.
Q. Is there a way for civilians in the city to leave?
The supply route is open to anyone who wants to leave. I do not think the government can close this exit because of the route’s location in our back line toward the Lebanese town of Arsal.
Q. What is the importance of Yabroud to the government? Why are the government and Hezbollah attacking it if the rebels hold it so tightly?
The FSA is on its home turf here—it knows every inch of the territory. This naturally gives us the advantage, if only slightly.
Yabroud’s importance lies in the fact that, if the regime conquers it, it will be a huge media victory in its favor, not to mention the fact that it would allow the regime to fully control the highway between Homs and Damascus, and this is among the country’s most important roads.
Q. Why did the government wait until now to begin the attack? It gained control of the rest of Qalamoun in November.
Because the rebels’ resistance in the areas the regime has recently gained control of has forced the regime to get its house in order. [It has had to] mobilize its forces yet again to organize another military campaign to occupy Yabroud, which is consider the Free Syrian Army’s strongest territory.
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