BEIRUT: A much-anticipated offensive by the Syrian regime against rebel forces in the Qalamoun region north of Damascus may finally be underway with a low-key start hinting at an operation that could more closely resemble a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign rather than a conventional military assault with tanks and troops.
Syrian and Lebanese rebels and sources close to Hezbollah say there has been an increase in airstrikes and artillery shelling this week mainly in the area between the Lebanese border and Yabrud and Nabk, two rebel-held towns at the northern end of Qalamoun.
“It seems the offensive has started at a low level. Jets have been strafing the area between Jurd Arsal and Yabrud and Nabk. We are expecting something big in the next two or three days,” said Abu Omar, a resident of Arsal who is a logistical coordinator for Syrian rebels.
Rifaat al-Eid, the head of the Arab Democratic Party, was quoted Thursday in Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper as scoffing at speculation over when the Qalamoun battle would begin, saying it started “two days ago.” His comments were confirmed by Hezbollah sources who said the tempo of the operation would begin to increase as of next week.
However, any offensive on Qalamoun may unfold a little differently from past Syrian army campaigns against rebel-held areas. Instead of a major assault using troops and armor in an attempt to swiftly crush rebel forces and drive them from the area, there are indications that the regime of President Bashar Assad may be opting for a more cautious “offensive-lite” approach with an emphasis on reconnaissance, timely intelligence, air power and small unit tactics over a span of several months.
Certainly, speculation has been rife in recent weeks that the Syrian army was poised to launch a campaign to oust rebels from the strategically significant territory between Damascus and Homs. Sources close to Hezbollah say that there has been much “chatter” lately within the party’s ranks about the preparations for the upcoming attack on Qalamoun. Rebel fighters, both Lebanese and Syrian, in Arsal and elsewhere in the northern Bekaa believe that the offensive is imminent, and they have been making preparations.
“We are getting ready to be attacked in Qalamoun. All the factions have set aside their differences and are prepared for the attack. We know it’s coming soon,” said Khaled, a resident of the northern Bekaa who has fought with Syrian rebels since the early stages of the revolt against the Assad regime.
The Qalamoun region holds strategic significance for both the Assad regime and the rebels. The highway linking Damascus to Homs and Tartous (and the coastal mountain chain that is home to the bulk of Syria’s Alawite community) passes through Qalamoun.
If rebel forces are able to cut the highway or at least deny the regime access by making it too dangerous to pass along, Damascus risks becoming isolated from the coast. Furthermore, rebel dominance of Qalamoun could provide aid to opposition forces fighting in the Damascus area. Qalamoun already is an important logistics hub for rebel forces in the eastern Ghouta area east of Damascus.
According to diplomatic sources, Yabrud, 60 kilometers northeast of Damascus, is home to several mortar production sites. Not only are tubes and base plates manufactured in the rebel-held town but also the mortar bomb and even ammunition for AK-47 rifles, all of which supplements munitions looted from over-run military bases and much of which is sent to the front lines in Damascus.
The diplomatic sources said that there were indications that the rebel groups, chiefly the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, were attempting to bolster the link between Qalamoun and rebel areas in Douma and eastern Ghouta by pushing south from the Sednaya-Rankous axis. The Syrian military is “boxed in” at Sednaya and subjected to hit-and-run attacks by Nusra, the source said. The one significant obstacle barring the rebels from connecting with Douma is the mountain chain north of Adra that is the location of a sprawling military base featuring underground missile facilities, artillery positions and air defense sites.
Rebels have been building up their strength in Qalamoun since the fall of Qusair in early June. A recent diplomatic report drawn up in Beirut noted that a few months ago the rebel strength in Qalamoun was around 5,000 fighters, including 200 from Nusra and 300 to 400 from the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham group.
Today, there are estimated to be between 25,000 to 30,000 rebel fighters with the main factions being Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, the Tawhid Brigade and the Islam Brigade.
They have seized control of a string of towns and villages including Yabrud, Nabk, Aasal al-Ward and Rankous that allows them to control the cross-border routes to Arsal in the northern Bekaa.
The Syrian army is still present in the area, mainly in the numerous military bases flanking the Damascus- Homs highway.
The fighting in the area is a confusing patchwork of localized attacks by rebel groups and tactical agreements between rebels and the Syrian army, the latter being a significant but often overlooked dynamic of the conflict.
For example, Nabk has been spared artillery shelling and airstrikes due to an understanding between the residents and the Syrian army, even though the town is in rebel hands, according to diplomatic sources.
On the other hand, neighboring Yabrud has been shelled repeatedly during the summer and in the past three weeks heavily, leading some rebels to believe the bombardment is part of a “softening up” campaign ahead of an assault on the town.
The Syrian regime presumably has eyed the rebel build up in Qalamoun in recent months with apprehension.
The question, however, is what can be done to check the rebel expansion, cut the logistical supply routes from Arsal in Lebanon and safeguard the critical transport links between Damascus and Homs. Does the hard-pressed Syrian army have the resources spare to mount an offensive against a large number of rebels in a broad mountainous area, especially given the approach of winter, which will bring rain, snow and low clouds over the mountain peaks?
Significantly, there have been no indications of a Syrian troop buildup ahead of an attack on Qalamoun.
“There was a tangible buildup for the Qusair operation and there was a tangible buildup for the Aleppo offensive [after Qusair fell] ... but there is no tangible buildup of forces for Qalamoun,” said a Beirut-based diplomat with extensive contacts in Syria.
A military offensive in Qalamoun is a vastly different prospect to the successful campaign that ousted rebel forces from Qusair in June.
The terrain around Qusair is flat, and the battleground was comparatively small compared to Qalamoun. In Qusair, there was a relatively clear front line with the Syrian army and its Hezbollah allies on one side and the rebels on the other. Hezbollah and the Syrian army were able to push the rebels from outlying villages into Qusair, surround them and eventually pound them into submission.
There are no clear front lines in Qalamoun, and the rugged mountainous terrain is ill-suited to tanks and armored vehicles, particularly as the rebels are well-equipped with anti-tank missiles looted from military bases.
To overcome these challenges, the Assad regime with its Iranian and Hezbollah allies may have resorted to a more unorthodox approach to deal with the rebel threat in Qalamoun, one that is closer to a Hezbollah-led counterinsurgency campaign than a conventional military offensive.
“It’s a whole different world in Qalamoun compared to Qusair,” said a Hezbollah fighter recently returned from Syria who agreed on condition of strict anonymity to given an overview of what is expected to unfold in Qalamoun. “The strategy is one of reconnaissance, air power, artillery and special forces.”
This is not a campaign for tanks and large troop numbers, he said, adding “you won’t see a single unit larger than five men.”
Like the preparations for Qusair, Qalamoun has been broken down into numbered sectors, and Hezbollah intends to slowly select targets and eliminate them or drive them into pre-selected kill zones, he said. He emphasized that the campaign’s success would depend on extensive reconnaissance, real-time intelligence and good coordination with air assets and artillery.
He did not think the winter weather would hinder the operation. This would not be a rushed operation, he said, adding that it could continue until May or even longer.
Still, questions have been raised about the wisdom of Hezbollah participating in an attack on Qalamoun because of the potential backlash that could further undermine Lebanon’s precarious stability. One diplomatic source estimated the number of Syrian rebel fighters inside Lebanon at between 7,000 to 9,000, of which between 2,000 to 3,000 are members of the Nusra Front.
“They have been stockpiling weapons and explosives around Lebanon,” the diplomat said. “If Hezbollah launches an attack in Qalamoun, there will be attacks against them here.”
Such assessments are hardened by recent security incidents such as the gunbattle Thursday in the Western Bekaa in which two Syrians were killed and a soldier wounded. Explosives were found in the Syrians’ car.
On Wednesday, a vehicle entering Arsal from Syria was seized by the army and found to be carrying weapons.
Furthermore, The Daily Star has learned that a prominent member of the rebel Free Syrian Army is negotiating with a top Lebanese security official in order to dissuade Hezbollah from entering Qalamoun, using the threat of instability in Lebanon as a bargaining chip.
Its intervention in Syria notwithstanding, Hezbollah has sought to prevent a security deterioration in Lebanon along Sunni-Shiite lines. The Hezbollah fighter said that the party’s attention was not so much on the reaction of Lebanese Sunnis but the potential actions of Syrian militants already in Lebanon. Plans have been made to counter any anti- Hezbollah backlash in Lebanon, he said.
Nevertheless, if Hezbollah leads a prolonged counter-insurgency campaign in Qalamoun, which almost certainly will be fought in part on Lebanese soil around Arsal, it is difficult to imagine that Lebanon will come out of it unscathed.