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Situation Assessment 22 December, 2013

The Qalamoun Battles: Calculations and Stakes

Policy Analysis Unit

The Policy Analysis Unit is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Policy Analysis Unit draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Assessment Report, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


Beginning with the regime’s assault on the city of Qara situated along the Damascus-Aleppo international highway on November 19, 2013, the Qalamoun region has seen significant military developments. The opposition battalions immediately responded to the assault by targeting the military security building and the Jallab checkpoint near the city of al-Nabak,[1] taking control of Deir Attiyah, a city also located on the international highway that the regime sought to re-take on November 28, 2013. Since this time, the region has seen military confrontations in a number of places—Deir Attiyah, al-Nabak, and Maloula, for example—leading to the closure of the highway for the first time since the launching of armed action by the Syrian revolution.

This paper examines the most recent military developments, and analyzes the struggle in Qalamoun and its possible outcomes. It also explores the calculations and objectives of the parties involved in the struggle and the continuing clashes.


Qalamoun’s Importance

The Qalamoun mountain range designates the Syrian side of the Eastern Lebanon Mountain Range (also known as the Anti-Lebanon Mountains), running parallel to the Beqaa Valley. The mountains extend from the northwest of Damascus to Mount Hermon (Jabal al-Sheikh) in the south and to the southern limits of the Homs countryside in the north, with more than one million inhabitants dispersed over numerous towns and villages, including al-Zabadani, Rankous, Assal al-Ward, Saidnaya, Tal Mneen, Halaboun, Talfita, Ain al-Fijah, Ain Mneen, Jabadeen, Maloula, al-Quteyfa, al-Raheba, Yabrud, Jerud, al-Qastal Qarah, al-Nabok, and Deir Attiyah. The region’s towns and villages are considered to be among the oldest human settlements in history, established in ancient times, consequently bearing witness to successive civilizations, with some of their inhabitants speaking old Syriac, particularly in Jabadeen and Maloula.

The cities of the Qalamoun are famed for the cultivation of fruit, which represents the principal economic resource of their inhabitants, alongside repatriated funds from expatriates as well as returns on smuggling and trafficking activity conducted on the border of Lebanon. In this regard, the towns of Sarghaya, al-Zabadani, Rankous, and Assal al-Ward are most prominent, and contain some of the most important military sites and contingents, such as the Third Division Command in al-Qutayfah, the 155th Brigade in al-Nasiriyyah (Ballistic Missiles), the al-Damir Military Airport, the Air Defense Brigades, the 18th Brigade, the 81st Brigade, the Special Forces teams, the Qastal Battalion, the Danha Arms Depot, and the new recruits’ center.  

The decline of government attention to agriculture led to a deterioration of the region’s condition and an increasing rate of poverty and unemployment among its inhabitants, bringing about an increased reliance upon smuggling to and from Lebanon for products such as wood, fuel oil, and food products. At the end of 2010, the government launched a major security campaign targeting smuggling operations and their networks throughout the border zones, including the Qalamoun region. This adversely impacted thousands of families who were dependent upon smuggling as a principle source of income, and compounded the population’s resentment toward a regime already held responsible for marginalizing their region and pursuing discriminatory policies that favored the development of some towns and neglected others.[2]

The aforementioned factors were sufficient cause for the majority of the towns in the Qalamoun region to join in the peaceful protests throughout 2011, though the people were not strongly involved in the armed struggle, with the following exceptions: Wadi Barada, the city of al-Zabadani (the first city to secede from government control on January 16, 2012), and the town of Rankous, which witnessed assaults and major military operations during 2012 and 2013.[3]  The area’s relative stability prompted the regime to withdraw some of its forces, and redeploy them to Damascus and its countryside (southern districts of Damascus and East and West Ghouta) to reinforce its defenses, putting an end to armed insurrection there.

However, this situation began to change in the middle of 2013. After the regime’s army and the forces of Hezbollah consolidated control over al-Qusayr on June 5, 2013, the city’s fighters and its population withdrew and barricaded themselves in the Qalamoun Mountains. They were joined by other combatants from southern and western Homs province, after the regime stormed those villages. At that time, the Qalamoun Mountains were a refuge for fighters withdrawing from the southern districts of Damascus and some of the towns in Eastern Ghouta after they fell into the hands of the regime’s forces, Hezbollah, and the Iraqi militias fighting with it.

Following the fall of al-Qusayr and the siege of the eastern and western Ghoutas, the Qalamoun Mountains became the sole gateway for provisioning the opposition forces in Homs and Damascus with weaponry and relief supplies arriving from the Lebanese town of Arsal. This has encouraged a number of factions, such as the Islam Brigade, the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant (Ahrar ash-Sham), and the al-Nusra Front, to move there and spread throughout the region’s towns.

Opposition combatants in the region’s towns are estimated at around 20,000, with fighters following various factions: the Military Revolutionary Council led by General Faris Bitar; the Army of Islam; the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant; al-Qusayr Commandos Brigade; the Ghuraba al-Sham; the al-Nusra Front; the Organization of the Islamic State; the Qadissiyah Brigade operative in Rankous and its environs; and numerous other small factions and militia groups.[4] These factions have undertaken a number of military operations focused on vital targets, such as arms depots in Regiment 555 on October 3, 2013;[5] al-Qastal; and in the town of Maheen (the second largest arms depot in Syria) on January 18, 2013,[6] in addition to targeting military positions and checkpoints along the international highway. Over the past three months, the opposition forces have succeeded in targeting and eliminating some 40 checkpoints in the Qalamoun Mountains, effectively rendering large tracts of the area outside of the regime’s control.

To contain this growing danger, the regime and Hezbollah mobilized their forces, and sent military reinforcements to a number of locations in the Qalamoun Mountains (along the Lebanese border and in Wadi Barada and Qara); consequently, many observers and analysts anticipate that sharp battles and confrontations will erupt in this region.


Qalamoun in the Calculations of the Parties to the Conflict

The Regime

Qalamoun is extremely important in the regime’s military calculations, and they fear any cutting of the Damascus-Homs highway because it would impact the regime’s ability to supply its forces in the central and northern regions, paralyzing human movement and economic activities between the north and the south.  Although the international highway has not previously been cut, the growth of the strength and expanse of the opposition has greatly alarmed the regime, and it consequently hastened to assert control over the city of Qara before any other city. It is currently attempting to prevent the opposition brigades from extending their reach and approaching important military positions, such as the Third Division in al-Qutayfah; the 155th Brigade in al-Nasiriyyah; and the al-Damir Airport. The opposition forces’ seizure of these locations would render the capital an open and nearly defenseless target, and enable the combatants throughout the Qalamoun region to easily communicate with rebels in Adra, Douma, and Haresta, as well as and the rest of the Eastern Ghouta. The regime’s objectives here are pressing and urgent, and explain the launching of military operations in the villages of al-Nabek, Qara, and Deir Attiyah. Objectives that can be deferred include completely severing the supply lines, curbing the supply of weapons from Lebanon, and closing all non-regime border posts, paving the way for the regime to deliver a severe blow to the opposition forces in the Homs and Damascus Provinces.


Hezbollah

Media and political sources close to Hezbollah display great interest in the Qalamoun clashes, and speak of an approaching decisive battle in the region, considering it to be a battle that is more important to Hezbollah and Lebanon than it is to the Syrian regime. Hezbollah fears the spread of the battlefield in Syria into the border territories of Lebanon after a series of accelerating developments, most notably the firing of at least 11 missiles into the outlying areas of the Lebanese villages Nabi Sheit and Sareen from the Qalamoun mountains, on November 14, 2013, and the increase in the regime’s air raids, targeting the Arsal villages and northern Lebanon.  There is a notable enthusiasm within Hezbollah for a commencement of military operations in the Qalamoun Mountains to secure the adjacent Lebanese villages, and prevent the opposition combatants from shelling them. At the same time, though, there is a concern to deal with the “imminent threat” the town of Arsal and Sunni villages of the Eastern and Northern Beqaa might pose, harboring armed groups and facilitating the passage of “jihadis” into Lebanon in order to target Lebanese regions and positions.

In a broader framework, Hezbollah is approaching the Geneva 2 Conference scheduled for January 22, 2014 with the belief that any resolution likely to emerge from it will have implications not only for the Syrian internal situation, but also for the balance of powers in Lebanon, and, therefore, the party’s place in the political arena, with regard to the formation of a government after more than nine months of stalemate, in particular. From this standpoint, Hezbollah seeks a military triumph in Qalamoun to fortify the regime’s position in the Geneva 2 Conference and strengthen the party’s position within Lebanon.

Because of the repercussions that might ensue and bring the Syrian conflict directly into Lebanon, some Lebanese groups have feared that Hezbollah might undertake, either on its own or with the Syrian regime, a military operation in the villages of Qalamoun adjacent to Lebanon. In a clear and direct reference to this, during the 70th Lebanese Independence Day commemoration on November 22, Lebanese president Michel Suleiman warned: “The State of Independence cannot survive if certain Lebanese parties or groups decide to become independent from the logic of the State, or if they agree to part from the national consensus by taking decisions that allow them to cross the borders and engage in an armed conflict on the land of a brotherly country, jeopardizing national unity and civil peace itself.”[7]


The Syrian Opposition

The Qalamoun region is vital to the opposition as whatever takes place there directly reflects upon its political and military position. The region is the sole artery of the southern and western Homs province and of some of the villages of the eastern Ghouta. Its loss would mean the regime would be able to choke and crush the revolution—confining the confrontation to isolated islands of resistance scattered over the expanse of the Syrian terrain—and complete what it had begun with the battle of Qusayr in May 2013. At the same time, gaining control over Qalamoun would enable the opposition fighters to move freely and control wide territorial expanses to the east to provide for communications between the eastern fronts (Tadmor, Deir el-Zor, and al-Boukamal) and Homs and Damascus provinces, in addition to providing for control of the Damascus-Homs international highway.

The assault upon Qara had a tremendous impact upon the plans of the opposition battalions. Consequently, it was only a few hours after the regime had gained control of the town that the opposition fighters began to surround the regime’s forces and target them in al-Nabek, followed by the capturing of Deir Attiyah and then Maloula, to cut the international highway. The regime’s seizure of Qara also ignited fears among the opposition forces in Eastern Ghouta that their supply lines might be completely choked off.  Therefore, they established a unified operations command and on November 21, were able to not only regain six strategic towns near Damascus International Airport, but also partially lift the siege that had been levied against Eastern Ghouta.


Long and Indecisive Battles

Given the importance of the Qalamoun region, control over it will be a strategic objective for all parties in the conflict, though it is unlikely that any one party would be able to quickly settle the situation in its favor. The vast area extending from Mount Hermon to al-Breij in Homs province requires an extensive mobilization of forces, and the difficult mountainous terrain further fragments any forces moving into the area, rendering them an easy target for their opponents.  Additionally, not only does the cold climate, which in winter drops to 15 degrees below zero, add further difficulty to the battle, but the cloudy winter weather conditions reduce the effectiveness of air force. These factors suggest that the battles in the region will drag on for a long time as rounds of “hit and run” attacks.

The regime and the opposition remain unwilling to enter into this difficult and complex battle, or are unprepared to do so, for the outcome cannot be known with any confidence, and would require long months. To take control of the entire Qalamoun region would require four major thrusts: alongside the international highway (al-Nabek, Qara, Deir Attiyah, and Maloula); into Yabrud and the villages adjacent to the Lebanese border near Arsal; into the triangle of Assal al-Ward, Rankous, and al-Zabadani; and into Homs province. Following this, a fifth round into Lebanese territory would be required, namely into Arsal and some of the central and northern Beqaa valley villages.

The Qalamoun region has been transformed into an operations setting in which each side, the regime and the opposition, cautiously attempts to strengthen its positions and build on its strengths, without opening up a major confrontation.

There is no doubt that the battles taking place in Qalamoun and throughout Syria will have an impact on the preparations for the Geneva 2 Conference. The notion that the battle for Qalamoun will determine the fate of Geneva 2, however, is not tenable. The tactical objectives of each side, such as securing the international highway or supply lines, take precedence over their long term calculations. If those exist.

 * The Policy Analysis Unit thanks Major General Mohammad al-Hajj Ali, former director of the Syrian National Defense College, for reviewing this paper and offering his comments.


**This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on December 4th, 2013 can be found here.

 


 [1] An important military point near al-Nabak on the highway.

[2] Some of the Qalamoun’s towns, such as Tal Mneen and Mneen and its surrounding villages, entered into armed conflict with the regime in the 1980s, during the confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, leading to the displacement and arrest of large numbers of their residents.

[3] Most of the Qalamoun region remained beyond the attention of the militant rebels in the Damascus countryside and Homs because its military importance was emphasized only after the regime had established control of al-Qusayr and laid siege to al-Ghouta. For this reason, the region did not see the confrontations and major military operations that took place in other towns before that time.

[4] Information obtained by the ACRPS from opposition combatants in Qalamoun. Also see, Omar Kayed, “Syrian Battle for Qalamoun Postponed: Taking the pulse the Attack on Qara,” [in Arabic] al-Hayat (Saudi Edition), November 21, 2013, http://alhayat.com/Details/574071.

[5] “Liberation of dozens of tanks from the warehouses of Regiment 555 in Qalamoun, Damascus Province,” YouTube video, October 3, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0ZL1fKm3n8 [The video and user account for this video have since been terminated.]

[6] “Maheen Arms Depot in the Rebel’s Hands but al-Assad’s Army Denies,” al-Jazeera.net, November 18, 2013, http://www.aljazeera.net/news/pages/6a13dafb-7c16-4d3b-9cef-3c103942cad8.

[7] Address by the president of the Republic of Lebanon His Excellency General Michel Suleiman on Lebanon’s 70th Independence Day, November 21, http://www.presidency.gov.lb/English/News/Pages/Details.aspx?nid=21406.