December 4, 2013
Since mid-November, the Syrian army has been on an aggressive offensive in Qalamoun, the mountainous region north of Damascus on Syria’s western border with Lebanon. On November 19th, Syrian army gained control of Qara on the Damascus–Homs highway, which connects the regime base in Damascus with its Alawite strongholds on the Syrian coast.
Since then, “the regime is focusing on the highway,” says Amer, the head of the opposition Qalamoun Media Center, who asked to be referred to by only his first name. Supported by Hezbollah troops and clashing primarily with Islamist groups like Islamic State in Iraq and a-Sham, Jabhat a-Nusra and the Islamic Front, the Syrian army has been moving south, seizing control of the village of Deir Attiyeh and now moving into western Nabek, the largest town in Qalamoun.
On Monday, rebel forces pushed back against regime advances, as groups led by Jabhat al-Nusra moved into the Christian village of Maloula, reportedly kidnapping 12 nuns. The location of the nuns remains unknown, though various groups report they have been transported to rebel-held Yabroud.
As clashes continue in Nabek and Maloula Wednesday, Syria Direct’s Mohammed Rabie spoke with Amer about the ongoing struggle for Nabek and why he believes the rebels’ most important stand will be at Yabroud.
Q: What is going on in Nabek? Why is the regime trying to control it?
A: The Nabek battle is still continuing at the moment. Nothing goes in or out of the city. Bakeries have stopped working for the fourth day under the strict blockade that regime forces are imposing on the city. The regime has seized control of the west part of Nabek, which is the line between the city and Lebanese mountains. The regime tried to break through the city from the Deir Attiyeh side north of the city, but the FSA is confronting them. The clashes on the highway are still on-going, and the FSA is benefiting, but the situation inside the city is hard.
The regime wants to control Nabek to secure and control the Damascus – Homs road. After Nabek, only Yabroud is left before they have full control on the highway road. Blocking this road is considered a strong punch against the regime, especially before Geneva II, as it will look like it is not in control. There has been a lot of pressure on the FSA lately, some coming from the SNC, some coming from the regime and some from the betrayal of other fighting groups. Recently, the FSA was asked to open the road so that chemical weapons could be transported to the Syrian coast before being destroyed on American ships.
Q: What happened in Deir Attiyeh, south of Qara?
A: The regime seized control of it. It was basically under regime control for two years, then the rebels broke through the town and used it to put more pressure on the regime after they had taken control of Qara.
Q: If the regime controls Nabek, what does that mean for Qalamoun? Where will the rebels go? What is their next battle?
A: The area is still open for the rebels. [The fall of Nabek] would not mean the end for rebels.
The regime, now, seeks control of the highway road to control Qalamoun and the rest of the towns. The regime is focusing on the highway now and I think the battle will be only there for now.
Q: So Assad forces have moved from Qara, into Deir Attiyeh and Nabek. Next in the line of towns along the highway is Yabroud. What is happening there?
A: Yabroud is the stronghold of rebels and the FSA. If the regime takes control of Yabroud, I would say we have lost Qalamoun. Yabroud is calm right now, there are no clashes ongoing.
Q: On Monday, there were reports rebel forces, led by Jabhat al-Nusra, had captured the Christian village of Maloula. Today, there are disparate reports about the fate of 12 nuns who rebel forces are reported to have kidnapped – some say they are in Yabroud and some say they remain in Maloula. Are clashes ongoing in Maloula and nearby Deir Cherubim, and where are the nuns?
A: Maloula was completely liberated from regime forces on December 2nd. Assad forces had been occupying houses and putting snipers in them. The snipers targeted everything that moved in the city. The town was liberated by the FSA after three days of fierce clashes between FSA fighters and the regime forces. Dozens of regime soldiers were killed, and two T72 tanks were destroyed, in addition to one BMB and one Shilka vehicle destroyed.
Since the moment of liberation, the regime’s Brigade 14 in Quteifa has not stopped shelling Maloula with artillery fire. Regime forces are mobilizing their forces around the city to regain control of it.
The Christian village of Maloula. Photo courtesy of Aksalser.
As for the fate of Mother Pellagi Sayyaf, head of the Mar Takla Monastery, a Free Syrian Army fighter said there had been attempts to evacuate the nuns from inside the monastery, and bring them to safety outside of the city. But the regime snipers prevented that, and there were a number of injured during these attempts. The FSA fighter confirmed to us that the nuns are still safe, but that rockets are burning the city and continue to target randomly. That is the real threat to the monasteries and the ancient city, and therefore the Mar Takla monastery and the nuns.
The Cherubim Monastery near Sednaya is the center of the regime army’s tanks and artillery, as a result of its strategic location and high altitude, overlooking surrounding areas.
Q: What is happening in Wadi Barada?
A: The area is quiet; it has been under rebel control for a long time. The regime tried to break through rebel control once, but their mission failed. If the regime tries any operation against Wadi Barada, rebels had threatened to either cut off or poison the water spring which provides all the water for Damascus. That has caused the regime’s retreat.
Generally, the regime now depends on the undercover agents among the rebels more than military operations. The regime deploys intelligence agents among the rebel forces and the FSA.
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