AMMAN: After a string of Hezbollah victories in the western Qalamoun Mountains last month, the Lebanese Shiite militia’s campaign to secure the border region has stalled, with its media outlets uncharacteristically silent.
“It is the beginning of Hezbollah distancing its media from Qalamoun at a time when it has been using the media as one of its essential weapons,” Abu Walid, a fighter with Ahrar a-Sham in Qalamoun, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.
For Hezbollah, the battle for the Qalamoun mountain range, which stretches along roughly 100km of the Syrian-Lebanese border, is an essential one to secure access to the porous region in which all manner of fighters, goods and weapons go in and out of Lebanon.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced the death of 13 fighters in Qalamoun since the battle began early last month, saying that “lives are not cheap.” Syrian opposition sources claim the group has lost as many as 150 fighters.
The militia lost Abu Hussein Sajid, its officer in charge of Qalamoun operations, while another military leader, Sajid al-Tayri was killed alongside 13 other Hezbollah fighters while defending Tallit Mousa mountain late last month.
Since the battle to take Qalamoun back from rebels began, Nasrallah has worked to sell it to supporters, making five speeches branding the fight as one to drive Sunni extremists from Lebanon’s border.
All quiet on the Al-Manar homepage Tuesday. Photo courtesy of al-Manar.
“It is our right and the rights of the citizens of Baalbek and Hermel to look ahead to a day where there is no longer a single militant on Lebanon’s outskirts,” he said during a speech on May 16 announcing a “strong defeat” for the rebels following the capture of Tallit Mousa three days earlier.
Nasrallah’s volley of speeches since the start of the Qalamoun campaign in March are “a justification for what is happening to Hezbollah in terms of its losses and to give a dose of optimism to its supporters,” Teem al-Qalamouni, who works with the opposition Qalamoun Media Center, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.
As recently as mid-May, Hezbollah’s news agency Al-Manar was publishing daily updates on the battle for Qalamoun, reporting that Syrian residents felt “great relief” after the expulsion of rebel fighters from some of their positions.
In the past week, Al-Manar has published only two short updates, one on regime air raids on “terrorist groups” in Qalamoun and another on Hezbollah fighters taking two hills in what it called the “completion” of the battle in Qalamoun. Since then, no further updates.
‘War of attrition’
Hezbollah’s losses may be a result of changing rebel tactics in its fight for the Qalamoun region.
“The nature of the Qalamoun mountains is…one that requires guerrilla and hit-and-run tactics, which we have adopted since the fall of Qalamoun last year [to Hezbollah],” Abu Walid said.
“This has led us to pursue a war of attrition against Hezbollah in Qalamoun.”
Last month, the Qalamoun Victory Army, a rebel coalition, announced a “tactical withdrawal” from some of its mountain positions in order to regroup and bleed Hezbollah out with hit-and-run attacks.
Following Hezbollah’s initial advances in the mountains, rebels have forced the group into taking a defensive posture, Abu Walid said.
“Having met our attacks, Hezbollah has begun to play a defensive role after its large losses in terms of fighters and weaponry,” the fighter said.