February 12, 2014
By Alex Simon and Osama Abu Zeid
AMMAN: Syrian government warplanes launched a series of 17 airstrikes on the rebel-held town of Yabroud before 2 pm on Wednesday in a renewed push to gain full control of the Damascus-Homs international highway in the strategic Qalamoun mountain range, according to pro-opposition media.
“The battle began in earnest today,” said Amer, a 23-year-old spokesman for the Qalamoun Media Center, speaking to Syria Direct Wednesday from inside Yabroud.
“A number of areas in [Qalamoun] have witnessed a major escalation in the last week, most importantly Yabroud, which is the FSA’s main stronghold in the region.”
Regime forces reportedly amassed around Yabroud Wednesday. Image courtesy of
Qalamoun Media Center.
The Qalamoun Media Center on Wednesday posted video of what it said was the day’s third air raid by a government MiG that “had not left Yabroud’s skies since morning,” and a photo purportedly showing government forces amassing around Yabroud.
The mixed Christian and Sunni Muslim town 75 km north of Damascus has been a major base for FSA and Islamist forces in Qalamoun for over a year, with rebel fighters having established makeshift munitions factories in the town.
Yabroud is the last rebel holdout in the strategic Qalamoun mountain range, which stretches roughly 80 km along Syria’s western border with Lebanon and contains critical supply routes used by rebels to transport equipment and fighters through pro-opposition Sunni towns in Eastern Lebanon to areas such as Yabroud.
Yabroud is also the site where hardline Islamist fighters are believed to be holding a group of 12 Greek Orthodox nuns who were kidnapped in December from the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, some 20 km to Yabroud’s southeast.
“The regime has thrown its weight into occupying Yabroud since taking control of Nabek, Deir Attiyeh and Qara,” Amer added, referring to three towns northwest of Yabroud that fell under regime and Hezbollah control in late November and early December of last year.
The fighting in Qalamoun has leveled off since those victories, which came during a furious offensive in which Syrian government and Hezbollah fighters seized control of Qara on November 19 before moving south to claim Deir Attiyeh and Nabek.
For months before the campaign began, Qalamoun had been billed as the next major front in Syria’s nearly three-year-old civil war, with Hezbollah calling it “the next war.”
In addition to rebel smuggling routes, Qalamoun also contains a key segment of the highway linking the Syrian capital with the central city of Homs—and, by extension, with Syria’s Alawite-heavy western coast.
“The highway is the regime’s one vital artery,” said Amer.
The towns of Qara, Deir Attiyeh and Nabek all sit directly along the highway; the regime’s continued control of all three towns has enabled it to keep the route open, whereas rebels had previously succeeded in shutting the road down between Nabek and Deir Attiyeh.
Yabroud lies some 5 km west of the road, but rebels have used their control of the town to launch periodic attacks on the highway. A regime victory in Yabroud would cement Damascus’ control over the highway, and effectively liquidate rebel presence in Qalamoun.
Amer acknowledged the high stakes last fall as the battle began. “If the FSA loses Yabroud, I can say that Qalamoun has slipped from our hands.”
The run-up to the renewed military assault has been marked by a media campaign in state and pro-regime outlets predicting a decisive victory in Yabroud.
“The Syrian army began gathering its military forces last week for a new battle in Yabroud,” reported the pro-Assad Lebanese daily al-Akhbar on February 3.
“This time, the battle will not aim to tighten the screws on the rebels, but to reclaim control of the city and its surroundings.”
Another al-Akhbar article published Tuesday conveyed similar confidence, quoting a “regional official” as saying that “the battle for Yabroud will overturn the Syrian war’s current balance, forcing [the opposition] to accept the logic that the Syrian authority is on the brink of winning the war.
While such rhetoric suggests that the current offensive could be intended to strengthen the regime’s position during the ongoing Geneva II peace talks, some observers remain skeptical that the diplomatic maneuverings in Switzerland have any relation to events on the ground.
“I wouldn’t get too hung up on the timing,” Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
“This is another stage in the wider Qalamoun campaign. The fact that Geneva is going on has no bearing whatsoever on the military dynamics in critical parts of Syria,” Itani said.
For his part, Amer, the Qalamoun Media Center spokesman, suggested that the renewed campaign indicates the regime’s desire to regain the initiatives after a recent uptick in rebel military operations in regime-controlled areas of Qalamoun.
Despite the mounting pressure, Amer maintains that rebel forces—which include FSA-affiliated brigades as well as fighters from the hardline Salafi militias Jabhat a-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham—are well-positioned to hold their ground.
“The FSA is on its home turf—it knows every inch of this territory,” he said. “This naturally gives us an advantage, if only a small one.”
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