Cross-border sectarian showdown: the battle for Qalamoun
November 26, 2013
November 26, 2013
The following is the first in a two-part series exploring the battle currently unfolding for control of Syria’s Qalamoun mountain range, which many observers believe could prove a turning point in Syria’s civil war.
By Alex Simon and Mohammed Rabie
AMMAN: The battle for Qalamoun is underway, as Syrian military forces along with their Hezbollah allies have launched a town-by-town campaign to bring the largely rebel-held mountainous region to its knees.
That battle began in earnest on November 19th, when a Jaysh al-Islam brigade, fighting alongside Free Syrian Army forces, unexpectedly withdrew from the rebel-controlled town of Qara, about 15km from the Lebanese border. The rebel pullout allowed regime and Hezbollah forces to enter the town from the north and capture it within 24 hours. The defeat forced the remaining rebels to retreat to the towns of Deir Attiyeh and Nabek, roughly 10 and 15 kilometers south of Qara, respectively.
For months, an estimated 30,000 rebel fighters, many of them with hard-line Islamist affiliations, have been bracing for a major Hezbollah-led offensive in Syria’s Qalamoun mountain range.
Qara, Deir Attiyeh, and Nabek are strategically critical for their proximity to the Damascus-Homs highway, which the regime seeks to control in order to secure its route from Damascus to the Alawite stronghold of Latakia on Syria’s western coast.
“The highway is the regime’s one vital artery,” said Amar, a spokesman for the Qalamoun Media Center, adding that military gains in Qalamoun would strengthen the regime’s hand ahead of the planned Geneva II peace talks.
The showdown may have begun in Qara, a mixed Christian-Muslim town located just west of the highway, because the town was a “weak point” for rebel forces in Qalamoun, Amar explained. Its rocky terrain allowed the regime to attack it from multiple fronts, and it had little rebel presence prior to the campaign.
The regime victory sent rebels fleeing south to the towns of Deir Attiyeh and Nabek, triggering a wave of violence that has been ongoing for the past several days. Nabek, a town of 50,000 with a Sunni Muslim majority and Christian minority, has been under FSA control for roughly a year, but is encircled by the regime’s 18th Brigade and has faced continuous air raids and shelling since last Wednesday.
Meanwhile, rebel forces—led by the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat a-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS)—appear to have seized partial control of Deir Attiyeh, a Christian majority town of roughly 10,000 that had been under government control since the revolution began in early 2011.
“On the morning of Wednesday November 20, the FSA entered [Deir Attiyeh] and liberated it, adding another achievement to the latest series of victories across Syria,” said the opposition Syrian National Coalition in a statement released Friday.
Regime forces have, however, retained control of the town’s only hospital, exacerbating humanitarian conditions. The offensive on Deir Attiyeh continues, with official Syrian agency SANA reporting on Monday that the Syrian army had “eliminated armed terrorist groups in Deir Attiyeh and dismantled dozens of explosive devices planted by them on the roads to and inside Nabek and Deir Attiyeh, while army units continue to comb the neighborhood of Qara.”
“The situation in Deir Attiyeh is very bad,” an activist in Nabek told Syria Direct. “Many people are fleeing and many are injured. There are no field clinics, and it’s very difficult to reach the hospital because of the violent clashes around it and because it’s surrounded by security forces and shabiha.”
The Local Coordination Committee for Yabroud—a Qalamoun town 10 km southwest of Nabek—reports that the FSA continues to cut off all movement along the Damascus-Homs highway between Nabek and Qara, having declared the highway a military zone. The Yabroud LCC posted a video [see above] on Monday showing “the destruction of the central market following an aerial bombardment, which killed one and injured dozens.”