Far from Syria peace talks, rebels focus on gaining ground

A rebel victory in the strategic town of Qusayr would challenge the regime's narrative of a failing, divided opposition. The rebels' effort appears timed to gain clout in negotiations.

By , Correspondent

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    Children carry goods at the Karaj al-Hajez crossing, a passageway separating Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr, which is under the rebels' control, and Al-Masharqa neighborhoods, an area controlled by the regime December 29, 2013. A year ago, the residents of Qasr were on the frontline of a struggle between the Assad regime and rebel forces for control of Qusayr and the surrounding villages.
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Syrian rebels are using Lebanese territory to launch a campaign to recapture the Syrian town of Qusayr, seven months after losing it to the Syrian Army and Hezbollah. Their offensive to retake the town is a stark contrast to the state of the rebel forces elsewhere in the country, where infighting has virtually frozen progress on the battlefield. 

The timing appears geared to the Geneva II peace conference that began today in the Swiss city of Montreux. Both the regime and rebels have attempted to seize ground in the weeks ahead of the conference to be in a more advantageous position if negotiations lead to cease-fire. 

Rebels say they have seized half of Jussiyah, a small town that lies on Lebanon’s northern border with Syria, which they will use as a toehold for a push on Qusayr, five miles to the north.

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“When we capture the last Army position in Jussiyah, the village will be with us,” says Abu Ahmad, a Lebanese from the Sunni town of Arsal who fights with Syrian rebels.

The campaign is partly intended to ease pressure on the rebels in the vicinity of Qalamoun, a strategic area to the south, adjacent to the Lebanese border, that has been under attack by the Syrian Army and Hezbollah since mid-November. A battle around Qusayr would divert scarce regime resources from other battlefronts, including that one. 

Seizing Qusayr would give rebels access to the highway linking Homs and Damascus to the coastal town of Tartous, a regime stronghold and crucial port, blocking the regime's effort to establish full control over the vital corridor. It could also complicate ongoing efforts to transport Syria's chemical weapons arsenal from Damascus to the port city of Latakia. 

The Assad regime's initial progress in Qalamoun, between Damascus and Homs, was swift. The military drove rebels from the towns of Qarah, Deir Attiyah, and Nabk, which lie on the Damascus-Homs highway, in less than three weeks. Since then, the campaign has faltered, partly because of bad weather in December, partly because of the rugged nature of the terrain, which suits the rebels, and partly due to the diversion of troops to other fronts, according to rebel and diplomatic sources in Beirut.

Furthermore, rebel sources in Arsal say that fresh funding from Saudi Arabia has reached Qalamoun, allowing rebels to bolster their defenses with purchases of weapons, ammunition, and other equipment. The source of much of the rebels’ weaponry is the Syrian Army itself – the temptations of hard cash trump the loyalties of some officers. The seizure of Syrian Army ammunition depots also is another profitable source of armaments.

Rebels in Lebanon’s northern Bekaa Valley told the Monitor in early October that plans were being made for a counter-attack against Qusayr using fighters then deployed in the Qalamoun area. It was put on hold in November when the regime launched its offensive against Qalamoun. But in an indication of rebel strength and confidence in Qalamoun, the attack on Qusayr began around 10 days ago with an attempt to recapture Jussiyah on the Lebanon-Syria border.

Open for business

Qusayr lies some 30 miles north of Qalamoun and is separated by a wedge of barren mountainous terrain in northeast Lebanon. Syrian Army troops control the ground between the two towns on the Syrian side of the border. To bypass the Syrian Army, rebel fighters slip across the border into Lebanon and move north through the deserted mountainous landscape, recrossing to reach the Qusayr area.

Rebel fighters say that the stone tracks that criss-cross the border, traditionally used for smuggling, remain open to traffic, even though sealing the frontier was a major goal of the regime’s offensive in Qalamoun.

“We have many units in the mountains and it’s impossible for Hezbollah to enter the area and mount ambushes on the border crossings. The northern mountain chain belongs to us alone,” says Abu Omar, an Arsal resident who is a logistical coordinator with Syrian rebel groups in Qalamoun. Abu Omar says he regularly crosses the border to pick up casualties in Qalamoun, reaching as far into Syria as Yabroud, close to the embattled highway.

“The crossings are all open. Even diesel fuel smuggling has started again,” he says.

A nexus of support has been Arsal, a town in the northern Bekaa Valley, about seven miles west of the border with Syria. An influx of nearly 40,000 refugees, most of them from Homs, Qalamoun, and Qusayr, has nearly doubled Arsal's population in the past three years.

The Lebanese Army mans checkpoints around Arsal but rarely ventures into the desolate mountains to the north and east, where rebel units are based. A new Army position close to the border at Jussiyah and on the shoulder of the mountains has come under mortar and rocket fire at least 19 times, according to a source close to the Lebanese army, adding that it was unclear who was responsible.

"We consider that whole range of mountains east and north of Arsal as part of the Syrian war, even though it is Lebanese territory," the source said. 

Abu Omar says that the rebels leading the attack against Jusiyah are the same groups driven from Qusayr in early June and that their opponents in Jussiyah are Hezbollah fighters.

“We are bringing Konkurs across the mountains from Qalamoun to use against the regime in Jussiyah,” says Abu Ahmad, referring to Russian AT-5 anti-tank missiles of which hundreds have been seized during rebel raids against Syrian army depots in the past six months.

Locals flee an imminent fight

The scale of the fighting was evident Monday in Qasr, a Shiite town on Lebanon’s northern border, six miles west of Jussiyah. The regular crump of distant artillery explosions broke the still afternoon air. Somewhere in the brilliant blue sky above the eastern edge of Qasr came the whine of a reconnaissance drone. Hezbollah operates several types of drone and reportedly has deployed them in Syrian battle fronts. The rebels also have used small short-range drones, according to diplomatic sources.

“The fighting across the border is unbelievable. Our boys [Hezbollah] are killing them [the rebels] like flies but they keep on coming,” says Abu Ali, a supporter of the Shiite party and local businessman whose home is a few hundred yards from the border.

A year ago, the residents of Qasr were on the frontline of a struggle between the Assad regime and rebel forces for control of Qusayr and the surrounding villages. Since the Syrian Army's seizure of Qusayr on June 5, the calm in Qasr has only been broken by the occasional rocket attack fired by rebels in the mountains north of Arsal.

But Abu Ali says the intensity of the renewed fighting in the Qusayr pocket has spurred him to move out of his home and relocate to the nearby town of Hermel.

“It’s too dangerous to live there now. We are afraid they [the rebels] may come across the border,” he says. “Anyone living near the border doesn’t leave home without a gun.”

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