Rebels on media offensive as Qalamoun battle hinges on Yabroud


February 25, 2014

February 25, 2014

By Alex Simon and Osama Abu Zeid

AMMAN: Two weeks after Syrian government and Hezbollah forces began a ferocious assault on the rebel-held town of Yabroud in the Qalamoun mountain range, rebel fighters appear to be standing their ground and even going on the offensive, both on the battlefield and online.

“The men of Qalamoun have prepared coffins for you,” the singer tells Hezbollah in a pro-rebel music video that has circulated widely among supporters in the past week. “Party of Satan, we’ve had enough—we won’t retreat, no matter what.” 

The video, entitled “Dig your graves in Yabroud,” is set against scenes of Hezbollah funeral processions.

For almost a week, opposition websites and social media have been abuzz with defiant images leveled at Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that since November has been leading the ground campaign to control the strategic Qalamoun mountain range along Syria’s western border with Lebanon. 

The mountains are of critical importance to rebels, regime and Hezbollah alike. They contain a key stretch of the M5 highway—which connects the Syrian capital with the central city of Homs, and, by extension, with Syria’s western coast—as well as rebel supply routes into Sunni areas of Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, where Hezbollah has a strong presence. 

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A popular cartoon in circulation since Saturday shows     Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah entering   Yabroud and leaving in nothing but his turban and a   diaper-like undergarment. The drawing plays on the palindromic link between Haalish—an Arabic acronym that rebels have adopted for Hezbollah, meaning “Hezbollah in Lebanon and a-Sham”—and Shaalih, Arabic for “naked.”

Another shows Nasrallah hanging by his teeth from the finger of a giant stone sculpture, labeled “Yabroud” in Arabic.

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Others have been more gruesome, such as a photograph purporting to show the blood-spattered heads of six Hezbollah fighters in Yabroud. “The catch of the day,” reads the caption.

These images have been accompanied by reports from opposition media claiming that rebels have inflicted heavy losses on Hezbollah fighters. One article published last Wednesday on pro-opposition news site All4Syria cited unnamed sources as claiming that the corpses of 64 Hezbollah fighters had arrived in Lebanon, including that of Nasrallah’s cousin.

Opposition sources have also reported military advances in the area around Yabroud. Taim, a citizen journalist in Qalamoun, told Syria Direct Tuesday that rebels had seized full control of the town of a-Sahel to Qalamoun’s north and the heavily contested Rima farms area separating Yabroud from the highway to the east. 

Meanwhile, pro-regime media have fallen largely silent after striking a triumphant tone in the lead-up to the current assault on Yabroud, which began with heavy air raids on February 12.

“The battle [for Yabroud] will not aim to tighten the screws on the rebels, but to reclaim control of the city and its surroundings,” reported the pro-regime, pro-Hezbollah Lebanese daily al-Akhbar on February 3.

Analysts suggest that the toned-down rhetoric may reflect Hezbollah’s recognition that Yabroud will not fall as quickly as the earlier media campaign had predicted.

“I imagine they want to manage expectations over the campaign, as it’s likely to be rather slow and costly,” said Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, in comments to Syria Direct Monday.

Another al-Akhbar article published February 11—one day before the fighting intensified—conveyed even greater 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.”

Over the last week, however, pro-regime outlets have moved their coverage of Yabroud off the front page and toned down the rhetoric to report on minor, unverifiable victories such as “eliminating pockets of terrorists and Yabroud and the Rima farms.”

The joint regime-Hezbollah advance in Qalamoun has slowed since it began with a furious three-week offensive in November, seizing the rebel-held town of Qara before pushing south to claim Deir Attiyeh and Nabek. All three towns lie along the M5 highway to Yabroud’s northeast.

While pro-regime forces have thus far managed to secure their access to the highway, they have had less success in cutting rebel supply routes to Lebanon.

“Hezbollah has not yet succeeded in cutting off supply lines into the central Beqaa Valley and Arsal in particular,” explains Itani.

“The Arsal issue is politically loaded,” says Itani. “Depriving the rebels of strategic depth here would require operating in a hostile Sunni population zone sympathetic to the rebels – something that both Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces would prefer to avoid.”

Despite changing winds in both the military and media campaigns, rebels in Qalamoun have few illusions that victory is at hand, and acknowledge that they may be facing a prolonged, destructive stalemate.

“There will be no winner and loser” in Yabroud, said the director of the pro-opposition Qalamoun Media Foundation, speaking with Syria Direct Monday from Yabroud.

“Neither the regime nor Hezbollah will be able to control the region,” said the director.

“They will keep shelling, besieging and destroying whatever they can.”

Video courtesy of alsarem albattarSecond photo courtesy of Yabroud Local Coordination Committee.

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