GAZIANTEP, TURKEY —
Following recent gains in the north of the country, Syrian rebels and their allies are preparing for a new offensive further south against President Bashar al-Assad’s ally Hezbollah, the Lebanese radical Shi'ite movement, for control of a strategic region on the border with Lebanon.
In initial skirmishes heralding the start of what Lebanese politicians are dubbing a “decisive battle” and prompting fear it will spill over to villages inside Lebanon, al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist fighters shelled Hezbollah and Syrian army positions in the towns of Wadi Barada, Al-Kfeir, Zabadani, Serghaya and Hreira, all very close to the Lebanese border.
Last year, Syrian government forces with Hezbollah fighters in the vanguard expelled rebels from most of Qalamoun, a strategic region 50 miles long and 25 miles wide stretching from the outskirts of the Syrian capital and along the Lebanese border.
That offensivefollowed a ferocious battle for control of Qusair, a key Qalamoun town, that pitted Syrian paramilitary forces and Hezbollah fighters against battle-hardened rebel militias, including al-Nusra, some of the toughest elements on both sides of the civil war
The town eventually fell to the pro-Assad forces, boosting Syrian army morale and ushering in a string of Assad battlefield gains.
But a coalition of Syrian rebel forces spearheaded by al-Nusra are looking to reverse those losses and emulate a battlefield campaign last month in the north of Syria that saw an Islamist alliance seize the cities of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour.
On Tuesday the rebels in Qalamoun officially announced the formation of a new alliance modeled on the successful northern pact formed in March. “By the grace of god, the Army of Conquest of Qalamoun has been established from the loyal and truthful [members] of most factions in Qalamoun,” the group announced midday on a newly created Twitter account.
Syrian rebels and Hezbollah have been engaging in an online propaganda war about the upcoming Qalamoun battle as well as moving fighters and weapons into the area in preparation for a clash. During the weekend al-Nusra posted online photographs of its fighters training with anti-tank weapons, including TOW missiles that pro-Assad propagandists falsely claim were supplied to the al-Qaida affiliate by the United States.
Syrian rebel commanders tell VOA the TOWs are from arsenals seized by al-Nusra during a bout of rebel infighting earlier this year from two Western-backed brigades, Harakat al-Hazm and the Syria Revolutionaries Front. Both brigades collapsed as a result of the infighting with jihadists and Islamists.
A senior U.S. State Department official says al-Nusra is a designated terrorist organization because of its affiliation with al-Qaida and insists, “We are not supplying them with any weapons or any aid of any sort.”
Option 'to contain the militants'
Hezbollah officials have been playing down the confrontation in the Qalamoun, in contrast with the movement’s leader Hassan Nasrallah predicting at the beginning of the year the need for another battle in the strategic region.
Tuesday, Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper quoted a senior Hezbollah official saying the Shi'ite movement sees no need to launch an all-out offensive against Islamist militants based in the Qalamoun. “Hezbollah, after an in-depth military assessment study, concluded that there was no need for a costly wide-scale offensive,” he said.
The official added that Hezbollah has opted “to contain the militants, cut off their supply routes by fire and keep them isolated in the highlands of the rugged mountains.”
But a European military attache based in Beirut told VOA that it isn’t “up to Hezbollah to choose whether there is a fight or not.” Much of what is coming from Hezbollah officials, he says, is an effort to dampen fears in Lebanon about what is unfolding. The last time there were heavy clashes across the border in Syria, there was major spillover in Lebanese villages along the frontier targeted by Syrian rebels for missile attacks
Hezbollah’s military engagement in Syria has come in for criticism even from its own supporters, especially in the south of the country, where Israel is seen as the main enemy. Much of that criticism within the Shi'ite community subsided on the emergence of the Islamic State in Syria and jihadist infiltration of Lebanese Sunni border towns.
Nusra attack on al-Juba
On Monday al Nusra-led rebel factions also launched an attack on the Qalamoun town of al-Juba and seized two strategic hills overlooking a highway linking Damascus to Homs. Rebel sources say they captured two Hezbollah tanks, destroying others during clashes. There were also skirmishes across from the Lebanese border town of Brital, says a Lebanese military official.
Both sides are hoping their own sworn enemies become a factor in the confrontation in the Qalamoun. Rebel commanders admit they would not be disappointed if the Israeli air force launch further airstrikes against Hezbollah like the raids mounted last month on a missile depot and a Hezbollah convoy in the region.
Israel has mounted several airstrikes on Hezbollah convoys in Syria fearing that advanced weaponry is being transferred from Syria to Lebanon for future use in any conflict with Israel. In January, an Israeli raid killed a Hezbollah commander on the disputed Golan Heights. Also, Israeli warplanes hit a weapons warehouse near Damascus last December.
Hezbollah and the Syrian government would benefit if the Islamic State in the provinces of Daraa and Quneitra redoubled their fights with jihadist rival al Nusra. The Lebanese newspaper As-Safir quoted last week an al Nusra commander acknowledging that an Islamic State offensive in either province would delay the battle in Qalamoun.