The following is the second in a two part series exploring the battle currently unfolding for control of Syria’s Qalamoun mountain range, which observers believe could prove a turning point in Syria’s civil war.
By Alex Simon and Mohammed Rabie
AMMAN: The battle for the Qalamoun towns of Nabek and Deir Attiyeh intensified Wednesday, with reports emerging that Syrian government forces, backed by Hezbollah fighters, have initiated a policy of isolating and starving out rebel-held towns in the strategic mountainous region.
“Regime forces are refusing to let food supplies, baby formula, and fuel reach besieged civilians in Nabek, imposing a blockade meant to starve civilians into submission,” reported the opposition Local Coordination Committee for Yabroud, a town 10 km southwest of Nabek, on its Facebook page Tuesday afternoon.
Such tactics, which mirror those adopted by the Syrian government in the Damascus suburbs of Eastern Ghouta for more than a year, are in keeping with Hezbollah’s previously announced plan to conquer Qalamoun through a gradual process of encircling and blockading individual towns in the area, which runs along the Lebanese border.
The results of a second air raid on Nabek on Wednesday November 27. Video courtesy of the Nabek Media Center.
Opposition media also reported Wednesday that clashes between regime and opposition forces are ongoing in Nabek’s western quarter.
Meanwhile, fighting continues for control of the town of Deir Attiyeh, which had been under regime control until a rebel campaign captured most of the town on November 20.
Syrian state news claimed Wednesday that rebels had committed a massacre inside the town’s hospital, which has remained under regime control and has been a major flashpoint for fighting.
“Terrorists stormed the hospital and committed a gruesome massacre, killing ten medical personal,” reported the SANA news agency, citing a report from the Ministry of Health, though no independent evidence was found to corroborate the claim.
Mohammed Jazairi, a 27-year-old opposition activist from the Damascus suburbs, suggested that the fighting in Qalamoun and Eastern Ghouta are part of the regime’s larger campaign to isolate rebel positions.
“The regime is trying to place a ring around Damascus, then drive a wedge between Outer Damascus, the capital and Qalamoun, which is the link between the capital and the north,” said Jazairi.
Potential for spillover
The fighting in Qalamoun has added to Syria’s humanitarian crisis, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimating last Friday that, over the course of a week, some 18,000 Syrians had poured across the border into the Sunni Lebanese town of Arsal, roughly 30 kilometers from Qara.
The flood of new refugees underscores the extent to which fighting in Qalamoun is expected to impact neighboring Lebanon. The mountains stretch roughly 50 miles along the Syrian-Lebanese border, and contain critical supply routes used by rebels to transport equipment and fighters through pro-opposition Sunni towns in Eastern Lebanon.
“Losing Qalamoun means losing the back line of the revolution in Damascus and its suburbs,” said a citizen journalist from the Qalamoun Media Center, who asked to be identified only as Amar. “There won’t be anyone to protect the revolutionaries.”
The Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah has announced it will take a leading role in the offensive, alongside a media campaign seemingly intended to prepare followers for a major military engagement on Lebanon’s eastern flank.
In late October, Hezbollah released a video entitled “We Will Defeat You in Qalamoun,” explicitly identifying Qalamoun as “the next war” and setting graphic images of slain rebel soldiers against a triumphant soundtrack.
Hezbollah was also a major player in the battle for Qusayr, a town farther north along the Syrian-Lebanese border where the regime won a major victory in June. Unlike Qusayr, however, where government and Hezbollah forces were able to achieve a decisive victory in only two weeks employing a scorched-earth policy, the battle for Qalamoun is expected to be long and grueling as a result of the region’s size and mountainous terrain.
The plan, according to Hezbollah, is a gradual military campaign based on encircling and besieging individual cities, towns, and villages. The militia has also warned Lebanese that it may face retaliatory attacks on Lebanese soil, a possibility that looms large following twin suicide bombings on November 19 that killed over 20 people in Dahiya, a south Beirut district that Hezbollah controls.
As the battle for Qalamoun unfolds, tensions in rebel-held areas are running high. “There is a great deal of betrayal taking place,” said Amar. “There are whole brigades working for the regime, not just individuals.” He speculated that Qara’s fall could have been the result of betrayal by one Jaysh al-Islam brigade, a theory common in opposition circles.
The defeat in Qara “should be a wake-up call for revolutionaries that there is betrayal among you,” the Qalamoun Media Center said in a post on Facebook, echoing rumors that some rebel groups had cut a deal with the regime to back out of Qara.
Following a deadly October 25 car bombing in Wadi Barada, another Qalamoun town, one 24-year-old rebel told Syria Direct: “The regime has spies here, no one trusts anyone anymore—especially after the bombing.”
Suspicions of regime infiltration have been swirling in Qalamoun since last summer, amidst occasional spikes in violence and anticipation of a coming offensive. Still, rebels and activists say they this is a battle they will not lose.
“The regime controlling Qalamoun is frightening, very frightening,” said Amar. “But the regime won’t control Qalamoun.”
With additional reporting from Abdulrahman al-Masri