As Yabroud falls, Qalamoun slips from rebel grasp


March 17, 2014

March 17, 2014

By Alex Simon and Osama Abu Zeid

AMMAN: The last rebel-held town in the Qalamoun mountain range fell Saturday after a month-long air and ground assault by Syrian government and Hezbollah forces, placing the regime in full control of the highway linking Damascus with central and northern Syria while leaving rebels on the brink of losing vital supply routes from eastern Lebanon into the Damascus suburbs.

Pro- and anti-Assad sources alike have said that the battle for Yabroud will be the decisive factor in ending the months-long struggle for control of the mountain range, with a defeat serving a major blow to rebels who have held the town since 2012.

“Losing Qalamoun means losing the back line of the revolution in Damascus and its suburbs,” said Amer, a spokesman of the Qalamoun Media Center who is based in Yabroud.

On November 19, Syrian government and Hezbollah forces mounted a ferocious assault to evict rebels from a string of towns along the M5 highway in Qalamoun. The mountainous topography is well-known to rebels, many of whom come from the region and use its many hidden routes to smuggle weapons and supplies from neighboring Lebanon.

Regime and Hezbollah forces moved methodically and efficiently, focusing their firepower on capturing the rebel-controlled region town by town, moving from north to south. Qara fell first last November, with Deir Attiyeh and Nabek falling in the subsequent weeks.

Fighting then leveled off for two months until regime and Hezbollah forces launched a fresh attack on Yabroud in mid-February, the last and most fortified rebel base in Qalamoun.

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Opposition sources acknowledge that regime and Hezbollah fighters have laid claim to most of the town.

Rebels, headed by Jabhat a-Nusra, continue to fight for the southwestern corner of Yabroud, where they cling to the scrap of highway that connects the town to supply routes inside Lebanon.

The regime has penetrated into the heart of Yabroud and taken control of wide swathes of the town,” a citizen journalist with the pro-opposition Syria Press News Agency told Syria Direct Sunday, adding that opposition fighters only remain in portions of southern Yabroud.

The Qalamoun mountain range, which stretches for some 80km along Syria’s western border with Lebanon, is strategically vital for both opposition and regime fighters. The area contains supply routes linking rebel-held areas of the Damascus suburbs with Sunni villages in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, as well as a key stretch of the M5 highway that connects the Syrian capital with central and northern Syria.

“If the Free Syrian Army loses Yabroud, I can say that Qalamoun has slipped from our hands,” said Amer in late December.

Battle takes an abrupt turn

Whether through bravado or genuine conviction, rebels launched a media campaign last month touting their success in holding Yabroud, despite predictions that it would fall relatively quickly.

Over the past two weeks, pro-Assad forces have pushed toward Yabroud from the neighboring areas of a-Sahel and Rima—to Yabroud’s north and northeast, respectively—before storming the town this weekend.

This weekend, however, pro-Assad forces stormed the town and appear to have captured it. While many rebels and activists online maintain that the “push-and-pull” battle is ongoing and being fought “street-by-street,” others have hinted that the rebels have effectively lost the town and are making what amounts to a heroic last stand.

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 A small contingent of rebel fighters led by Jabhat a-Nusra continued to fight for control of areas in southern Yabroud Sunday. Photo courtesy of the Qalamoun Observation Unit

“Pray, pray for those who remain in Yabroud—esteem and dignity,” wrote Yabroud’s Local Coordination Committee Sunday.

Some opposition figures question how regime forces were able to enter and take the town so quickly. After weeks of being pounded with barrel bombs and ground fire, Syrian military and allied units met little resistance, sparking allegations that some rebel groups had abandoned the town as part of an agreement with the regime

“Yabroud did not fall—it was handed to the regime and Hezbollah,” tweeted a spokesman for Jabhat a-Nusra on Sunday. He charged that other factions had fled the town with no resistance, prematurely announcing that it had fallen in order to justify their own flight.

Many fighters have fled to nearby towns and villages still under rebel control, including Rankous to Yabroud’s southwest and Fleita to the northwest.

For weeks, a less-publicized battle for the village of Ras al-Ma’ara, also northwest of Yabroud along the Lebanese border, has been unfolding. The town lies just on the Syrian side, along the east-west highway coveted by rebels. If the regime can capture it, the win will effectively shut down the supply line into Sunni villages in Lebanon friendly to rebels.

The Qalamoun Media Center reported five dead and others wounded in Ras al-Ma’ara Sunday as regime aircraft targeted the village with barrel bombs in an apparent attempt to cut rebel supply lines between Qalamoun and the Beqaa Valley.

Rebels have previously warned that a defeat in Qalamoun could have dire consequences for the opposition struggle in Outer Damascus. Amer, the Qalamoun Media Center spokesman, says that the mountainous region was key to protecting rebels in the Damascus suburbs.

If Qalamoun falls, he says, “there won’t be a rear flank to protect the revolutionaries, and the regime is trying to prevent the FSA from moving toward the capital.”

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