HERMEL, Lebanon: Hezbollah and the Syrian Army have hit a wall in their fight to root out opposition forces from the mountainous Qalamoun area just over the Syrian border from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
“We need more fighters to launch an extensive attack against the rebels,” a Hezbollah official told The Daily Star. “Their [the opposition’s] numbers ranges between 5,000 and 10,000 fighters.”
As rebels continue to cling to their foothold in Qalamoun, they continue to travel easily in and out of Lebanon, raising concerns of more attacks here from Islamist militants galvanized by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria’s (ISIS) recent gains in northern Syria and Iraq.
Last year, Hezbollah and Syrian army troops easily recaptured much of Qalamoun.
“No real battle took place in Qalamoun because the Syrian opposition learned from its losses in Homs and Qusair,” said Bakr Hujeiri, the Future Movement coordinator for the eastern border village of Arsal.
The losses sustained in the battle for Qalamoun made the opposition wary of repeating the same mistakes, and so they withdrew from the main towns to the remote areas extending from northern Jousieh toward the outskirts of Zabadani in Reef Damascus.
This rugged mountainous area, which extends over a length of 70-80 kilometers and 30-40 kilometers across, is pocketed with caves and rough terrain where fighters can easily find hiding places.
Hezbollah and the Syrian regime launched another offensive more recently to gain control of the Lebanese town of Tfail, cutting off rebels positioned in Zabadani from another set of fighters deployed between Tfail and Arsal.
According to Hujeiri, Hezbollah sought to surround the opposition by deploying from the outskirts of Al-Qaa toward Qara.
“They tried to limit the Syrian opposition’s access and cram them along 60 kilometers to cut off any means of communication between the fighters present in the Zabadani area and those positioned on the outskirts of Arsal,” Hujeiri said. “This is considered to be a partial and limited victory.”
Limited, because Hezbollah and the Syrians have since failed to push north into Al-Qaa. Hezbollah and its ally were forced to withdraw after clashing with opposition forces in the Heqab al-Kaf neighborhood on the border between Arsal, Ras Baalbek and Al-Qaa.
“The party has been advancing toward some axes as part of the military plan,” the Hezbollah official said. “This aims to divide up the area controlled by the Syrian opposition and encircle it.”
Although the source believes that neither side will be able to win a decisive victory of the area, he was confident the opposition would eventually tire and give up.
In the meantime, and with the Lebanese Army keeping an eye on the outskirts of Arsal, Hezbollah has been monitoring the rugged mountain paths favored by rebels using drones and picking off fighters with ambushes and landmines. The opposition has launched its own series of attacks in an attempt to regain control over Rankoush.
These clashes intensified when rumors spread about a possible attack by Syrian opposition groups against the Shiite border towns in Syria, especially Labweh, Nabi Othman and Al-Ain, which is close to Arsal.
“If Hezbollah and the Syrian army want to have full control over the area, they are in dire need of huge numbers of fighters and ammunition – something both sides lack – due to the geography of the land,” Hujeiri explained. He put the number of Syrian opposition fighters in the area at around 5000.
Hujeiri cautioned that the presence of so many fighters in the mountains poses a threat to Lebanon’s security and stability, an assessment that was echoed by an Army expert who asked to remain anonymous.
“Opposition fighters can now fight the Syrian army inside Qalamoun and then retreat into Lebanon’s safe areas since the regime can’t enter,” the expert said.
“Especially that around 100,000 refugees fled Qalamoun to Arsal where many of the fighters’ families are taking refuge.”
The expert addded that these fighters would continue battling the Syrian army in Qalamoun and could also coordinate attacks inside Lebanon in an attempt to strike Hezbollah at home.
Last year, areas associated with Hezbollah such as the southern Beirut suburbs and the northern Bekaa were targeted by suicide bombings claimed by groups linked to the Syrian opposition.
A government-backed security plan managed to restore stability to most of the country, but ISIS’ recent victories in Iraq have both galvanized and provoked Islamists fighting in Syria and beyond.
“The opening of Iraqi and Syrian borders by [ISIS] might instigate opposition fighters in that area [Qalamoun],” said Hujeiri, who estimated that about 20 percent of the fighters are linked to the Nusra Front, who has acted as both enemy and ally to ISIS at different times and in different parts of Syria.
The Army expert said that the winter would be tough on rebels hiding in the mountains.
“They’ll either flee to the Syrian towns, something that requires an agreement between them and the Syrian regime, or leave to the Lebanese valleys,” he said.
If the rebels move into Lebanon, they would come into direct contact with predominantly Shiite villages in the Bekaa Valley, where Hezbollah maintains a strong presence. It is vital, therefore, that the Lebanese Army deploy throughout the area to avoid clashes.
“Collaboration is a must between the Lebanese and Syrian armies to put an end to this issue, but each from his side,” the source concluded.