Hezbollah close to cutting off key route for Syrian rebels, refugees

A painstaking Hezbollah and regime offensive in Syria's Qalamoun region is coming to its climax. A victory would sever the main route to Lebanon for fleeing civilians and military supplies.

SANA/Courtesy via Reuters/File
Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad are seen in the Qalamoun mountains north of Damascus, December 27, 2013.

The grainy black-and-white infrared images from the night-vision camera show a group of rebel fighters, apparently members of Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, as they creep through the night, unaware Hezbollah is watching them.

After a few moments, a Hezbollah man monitoring the screen in an operations room gives the order: “Abdullah, go ahead and detonate.” A massive explosion fills the screen and the rebel fighters disappear behind a black cloud of smoke. The sound of the blast reaches the operations room seconds later.

The ambush occurred along a trail used by Syrian rebels to sneak from Lebanon into Syria, where the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah is spearheading an offensive to seize the mountainous Qalamoun area north of Damascus

The fighting has centered on Yabroud, a Sunni and Christian town and the largest in northern Qalamoun. It has been battered for weeks by Syrian Army artillery fire and the notorious barrel bombs, a mix of explosives, and fuel oil dropped from helicopters as Hezbollah fighters gradually seized outlying areas.

“We are on the outskirts of Yabroud and I can see the enemy as clearly as I can see you,” says a veteran Hezbollah fighter who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Jamal. He returned from the Qalamoun front a week earlier and agreed to discuss the offensive on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The Assad regime launched the offensive against Qalamoun in mid-November in order to secure the critical highway that links Damascus to the Mediterranean coast. It swiftly seized three towns in the first weeks of the campaign, but the offensive slowed as Hezbollah’s fighters pursued a more cautious approach toward the key objective: Yabroud.

Yabroud is the last significant rebel-held town adjacent to a Sunni-populated area of Lebanon that has been a bedrock of support for rebels. Smuggling tracks link the Lebanese town of Arsal to Yabroud, used by civilians fleeing the fighting in Qalamoun and by rebels as a supply line. Some of the car bombs that targeted Shiite Hezbollah-supporting areas of Lebanon in recent months are believed to have originated in Yabroud.

Last week, a village three miles north of Yabroud was captured, and several hills overlooking the town have also been seized. An escape route to Lebanon has been left open in the hope that the remaining rebels and civilians will flee, rather than stand and fight.

“We have no orders to invade Yabroud. We are doing reconnaissance and sniping,” says Abu Jamal.

Hezbollah units are deployed in Qalamoun for a month at a time – instead of the usual week in Damascus and its suburbs – because of the difficulty reaching the frontlines. The route entails a lengthy, uncomfortable drive in SUVs on dirt tracks from Hezbollah-controlled areas on the Lebanese side of the border, across a barren rugged mountain chain into northern Qalamoun. 

The whine of Hezbollah's reconnaissance drones can be heard sometimes along the border. The fighters use sophisticated long-range surveillance cameras and heavy weaponry from the Syrian military, including the powerful improvised short-range rocket known as the Volcano, in which a barrel of explosives is fitted to a 107mm or 122mm rocket motor. The Volcano has proved devastating in urban environments, sometimes bringing down a building with one strike. 

Abu Jamal says that Hezbollah fighters are even operating tanks and self-propelled four-barreled 23mm anti-aircraft guns, known as Shilkas, an unusual addition to its capabilities that indicates Hezbollah’s increasing sophistication.

Yet it has taken a slow, cautious approach toward Yabroud, a lesson learned from the May and June assault on the town of Qusayr, five miles north of the Lebanese border. The rebels lost the 17-day battle, but it came at a high price for Hezbollah: 70 to 110 fatalities.

Civilians have not returned to Qusayr, and today it has become a Hezbollah base, according to Abu Jamal. The battle-scarred ruins are used for urban warfare training, he says.

It is less certain that the overstretched Syrian Army can secure northern Qalamoun like it did Qusayr once Yabroud falls, because the regime lacks the manpower to indefinitely garrison the rugged mountainous terrain. Rebels based in Lebanon could slip back into the area around Yabroud fairly easily. The only way to prevent the area from falling back into rebel hands may be to bring the war to Lebanon – and no one seems ready to do that. 

“The problem is that Hezbollah’s Qalamoun offensive will be wasted if the major rebel bases around Arsal… are not also neutralized because neither Hezbollah nor the Syrian regime will have enough manpower to keep the Qalamoun mountain area after the conquest,” says a European diplomat in Beirut with extensive contacts in Syria.

“But any attempt to take control of Arsal and other Sunni areas in the Bekaa Valley conducted by the Lebanese army, backed by Hezbollah, is likely to create much wider sectarian division and conflict in Lebanon.”

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