Dispatch

The Battle for the Qalamoun Mountains

Along the Lebanese border with Syria, Hezbollah is preparing for an all-out war with the Sunni fighters of al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State.

LEBANON-SYRIA-CONFLICT-HEZBOLLAH
A Hezbollah militant looks through his binoculars in Umm Khorj in the Lebanese eastern mountain range close to the Syrian border on October 9, 2014, after capturing the area from Islamic State (IS) militants. Lebanon's border with Syria is not officially defined and much of it is porous and unpatrolled, with local residents, smugglers and others moving freely across it. AFP PHOTO/SAM SKAINE (Photo credit should read SAM SKAINE/AFP/Getty Images)

AL-QUSAYR, Syria — This embattled western Syrian city, which lies six miles from the Lebanese border, remains all but deserted. The majority of the residents have not been able to return, while the very few who have not already fled are forced to navigate their way through dozens of checkpoints and pockmarked roads, maneuvering around collapsed buildings. The streets are piled high with mounds of rubbish, and children pick their way through the rubble from one street to the next. Entire buildings remain gutted and derelict.

Almost two years ago, huge battles raged inside Qusayr between the Syrian army and Hezbollah on one side, and militants from the Syrian armed opposition on the other. Today, the city remains destroyed, an unrecognizable shell of its formerly vibrant self.

“Al-Qusayr was a very tough battle, it was the first time we were fighting properly inside a city and against militants who had been securing their positions in the city over a period of three years,” explained Mohammad, a Hezbollah fighter who participated in the fight. “For the last 25 years, we were used to fighting in open plains, not inside cities.”

Over a series of months, Mohammed and his comrades successfully adapted to urban combat, driving the Syrian opposition fighters from the city. Today, every few blocks, a convenience store is open, providing basic services for the Syrian army soldiers and Hezbollah fighters stationed there. Groups of Hezbollah fighters gather together on street corners, as their comrades in the Syrian army sit, smoking, in front of bombed out storefronts.

Qusayr holds strategic value to factions on both sides of Syria’s bloody conflict. Its close proximity to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to the west, and the Syrian city of Homs to the northeast, made it a key route for Sunni militants flowing in and out of Lebanon and Syria. For Hezbollah, meanwhile, any opposition base in the area poses a real threat to the Shiite group’s stronghold in the Bekaa, and inhibits the group’s access to the Syrian cities of Damascus, Latakia, Tartous, and Homs.

“[The Bekaa Valley] is not just the backyard of Hezbollah; it is Hezbollah,” one Lebanese political source familiar with the party said. “They needed to cut the veins of the Syrian opposition in Lebanon.”

The frontline of Qusayr has now shifted south to the Qalamoun mountain range bordering Lebanon and Syria. Here, fighters from a variety of opposition groups have dug themselves in, and Hezbollah and the Syrian army have spent the past year and a half attempting to clear the area. They now have the opposition fighters encircled on three fronts: When the winter ends, the two sides will likely embark on another confrontation that will reverberate in both Lebanon and Syria.

The Qalamoun Mountains, which stretch over a distance of roughly 60 miles, present a difficult landscape: jagged mountaintops, deep valleys, and open plains. For the militants — consisting of an assortment of groups, including affiliates of the Islamic State, the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, and remnants of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) — capturing the area could allow them to secure a supply route from the Lebanese city of Tripoli to Syria’s eastern desert. Hezbollah, meanwhile, needs to prevent its enemies from establishing a foothold in the area in order to protect its bases in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and its access to Damascus.

For Mohammed, the struggle to secure Qalamoun presents different opportunities and challenges than the battle for al-Qusayr. While Hezbollah is now operating with more technologically advanced equipment, he says, it is also looking to push back the rebels with far fewer men than it devoted to the previous fight. “We have drones that help us monitor the militants, which we didn’t have in al-Qusayr,” Mohammed said. “There were probably 5,000 fighters used in al-Qusayr, including logistical and medical support, but only 500 or so were actually fighting. Whereas, in Qalamoun, we are in the hundreds only.”

While it is impossible to verify Hezbollah troop figures, both Lebanese security and political sources with intimate knowledge of the battlefield put the death toll of Hezbollah fighters in the battle for Qusayr, which lasted over six weeks, at approximately 140 men. The same sources say that the group has lost fewer than 100 fighters in the fight for Qalamoun thus far. Approximately 800 Hezbollah fighters are also lined up along the Lebanese border, alongside other armed groups such as the Resistance Brigades and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, with another 300 men or so inside the mountain range, attempting to stave off attacks and infiltration into Lebanese territory.

According to Mohammad, there are around 30 Hezbollah personnel at each of the group’s Qalamoun outposts, which are located every two miles. He admitted their enemy is much stronger on the ground today than ever before. “They’ve received foreign training, their strategies are better, and they know how to fight under missile fire,” he said. “They have stronger weapons; their weapons are exactly the same as ours.”

Yet he still seemed confident about Hezbollah’s ability to hold its enemies at bay. “The militants are suffering; when they infiltrate our radio waves, they beg us for food,” he said with a grin. “We have hot food, we have lots of fighters ready and trained, we’re comfortable.”

The opposition-held area of Qalamoun now largely falls on the Lebanese side of the mountain range. Groups affiliated with the Islamic State control the northern area, while al-Nusra Front and some members of vastly weakened local FSA groups, which have now joined the al Qaeda affiliate, have control over the southern area, according to numerous sources on the border. Hezbollah’s biggest threat is currently from al-Nusra Front, and the Shiite group is banking on the onset of winter to weaken the militants.

It’s unclear yet whether that strategy will pay off. Hezbollah found itself on the defensive following recent attacks by al-Nusra Front on the outskirts of the Lebanese towns of Nahle and Britel, and several Hezbollah fighters were killed in the clashes. Meanwhile, recent infiltration attempts by Islamic State militants in Ras Baalbak resulted in casualties for the Lebanese army.

Yet despite these skirmishes, some analysts who have been closely monitoring the situation believe Hezbollah retains the upper hand. “Hezbollah and the Syrian army have the militants encircled, putting them in a strong position in Qalamoun,” said Lebanese political analyst Hosam Matar. “They’re not in any hurry, as they’re satisfied with the status quo.”

Others disagree, saying the skirmishes demonstrate that Hezbollah underestimated the strength of the militants. “[Nusra] now controls key areas along the mountaintops,” said Mario Abou Zeid, an analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Center. “[It] has been able to maintain its positions despite the snow.”

According to Abou Zeid, Nusra poses a much more serious strategic threat to Hezbollah than the Islamic State affiliates in Qalamoun. “Nusra’s aim is to infiltrate inside Lebanon in order to build up their strength in the northern Bekaa region, and create an enabling environment within the Syrian refugee and local Sunni communities,” he said.

Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley consists of a mixture of Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and Druze. Arsal, a majority-Sunni town near the border, is widely believed to have served as a base of support for the militants since the start of the crisis in 2011. It is now host to over 70,000 Syrian refugees largely from the Qalamoun area, who outnumber the local residents by two to one. Today, the militants still maintain control over the primary supply line leading to the town.

“While Hezbollah has general control over the Qalamoun area, its weak point is Arsal,” said Matar. “Arsal is a lifeline for the [opposition] fighters; it provides hospitals, recruitment of more fighters, and logistical support…. Hezbollah cannot approach Arsal because of the sectarian issue, so its strategy until the spring is to isolate the fighters from the other areas.”

For now, the battle drags on, with each side struggling to outlast the other in a border war that could alter the fate of two countries. Despite skirmishes and heavy snow, al-Nusra Front has not been starved out, and Hezbollah is dug in place. With Hezbollah working to prevent the militants from advancing further into Lebanon — or into Syrian territory under the control of the Syrian army — another major battle is almost inevitable.

The Shiite group’s fighters are already preparing for that day. “There will definitely be a big battle once the snow melts; maybe next month, but definitely by the time spring comes along,” said Mohammad.

SAM SKAINE/AFP/Getty Images

Nour Samaha is a journalist based in Lebanon.

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