February 25, 2014
Two weeks into a furious Syrian government assault on Yabroud, the largest remaining rebel-held town in the Qalamoun mountains, rebels are on a surprising offensive.
On Monday, the pro-opposition Qalamoun Media Foundation reported that, despite heavy shelling and the Syrian air force’s use of barrel bombs on rebel-held positions, Free Syrian Army-affiliated combatants and Islamist brigades, including Jabhat a-Nusra and the Islamic Front, had eliminated regime forces in the Rima farms, in eastern Yabroud.
The advance comes a day after the Islamic Front and others announced they had seized control of the village of a-Sahel, northeast of Yabroud, forcing a retreat of Syrian government troops and their Hezbollah reinforcements. The Syrian media tacitly verified the rebel advances when pro-regime daily al-Watan reported government forces had eliminated rebel fighters, including Jabhat a-Nusra combatants, in Rima, a-Sahel and Yabroud itself.
An FSA tank in Qalamoun. Photo courtesy of the Qalamoun Media Center.
The ongoing battle for Yabroud marks opposition forces’ last stand in Qalamoun. In late 2013, a Syrian government offensive seized a string of towns in the mountain range, which forms Syria’s border with Lebanon. Moving from north to south, Syrian troops reinforced by Shiite militias from Iraq and Hezbollah fighters gained the towns of Qara, Deir Attiyeh and a-Nabek, in the process tightening government control over the national highway running from Damascus to Homs.
As rebel groups hold their ground positions under a blistering Syrian air force assault, Syria Direct’s Osama Abu Zaid spoke with the director of the pro-opposition Qalamoun Media Foundation about why believes “there will be no winner or loser” in the battle for the town.
Q: It has been two weeks since the battle of Qalamoun restarted. How do you see the current situation?
The war in Qalamoun is not new and did not begin one week or two weeks ago. The assaults on Qalamoun have been constant since November 27, 2011 when the regime’s army carried out its first campaign on the towns of Rankoush, Assal al-Ward and Housh Arab. Now the regime is trying to take control over the towns one at a time and was able to take control of the town of Qarah in Novermber. Then they moved to a-Nabek, where it prevented the FSA from entering the town. A-Nabek is not a free town. After a-Nabek, the skirmishes continued in Rima, which is a part of Yabroud, and have escalated with the extensive media campaign and sectarian militarization in the region.
Q: Where is the fighting concentrated in Yabroud? And is there any truth to the talk about opening up new fronts in Nabek and Rahiba?
The fighting is concentrated in three areas. First: Rima, which is the section that overlooks the highway. Second: Aqaba, at the entrance to Yabroud. Third: The village of Sahel, on the eastern side of the city.
As for fronts in a-Nabek and Rahiba, those are merely rumors. As of now, there has been no real movement on these fronts. There have only been skirmishes and some mortars and Grad rockets until now, so we really can’t talk about a new front.
Q: You spoke about a battleground near the highway… Who is currently controlling the road?
Currently, the regime controls the road and is trying to advance toward Yabroud. There are no real battles right now on the road. It is currently open.
Q: What is going on with the supply lines between Lebanon and Qalamoun? Is Hezbollah trying to gain control of them?
The truth of the matter is that the supply lines Hezbollah is discussing are not that militarily important. Weapons are much more spread out in Syria now than they are in Lebanon.
Q: There is talk that the regime has evacuated from a number of locations. Is that true?
The regime has withdrawn from a few regions in which the army and Hezbollah had been concentrated. It has relocated and retreated and is building defensive walls to protect itself from the unexpected attacks it has faced the past few days. It should be noted that the withdrawal is to the battleground near the village of Sahel.
Q: What is the ISIS presence in Yabroud? Is there an agreement between ISIS and the other brigades?
ISIS has a very small presence in Qalamoun, numbering no more than a few dozen. They have very little impact in the province, though there is an agreement between them and the other forces that they don’t get in each other’s way. I hope that they stay far away from Qalamoun and the fighting. I am not talking about joint or coordinated efforts between ISIS and the other groups; they are not a part of the military council of Qalamoun.
Q: Where do you see the battle in Yabroud going?
The battle is not just a battle for Yabroud. It is a battle for Qalamoun. I see the battle leading to the perseverance of the FSA and Jubhat a-Nusra and continuous fighting, like in the case of Daraya. Meaning, there will be no winner or loser. Neither the regime nor Hezbollah militias will be able to take control over the region and will only be able to continue shelling, destroying and blockading the region.
For more from Syria Direct, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.