CAIRO — A two-weeks-long Syrian army assault on the last major town held by rebels in the mountainous Qalamoun region along the Lebanese border is facing renewed resistance from insurgents, say opposition activists.
Despite ferocious artillery bombardments and frequent airstrikes and the severing of supply lines, government forces assisted by fighters from Lebanon’s radical Shiite movement Hezbollah have been unable to overrun the town of Yabrud.
Qalamoun is a highly strategic region 50 miles long and 25 miles broad stretching from the outskirts of the Syrian capital to the Lebanese border. Retaking Yabrud is key for Syrian government forces to interdict arms supplies from Lebanese Sunni backers of rebels battling to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
Rebels commanders admit that the loss of Yabrud would be a major setback, and rebel fighters recuperating from wounds in the nearby Lebanese town of Arsal told VOA recently that defeat would be “disastrous” for their ability to maintain an insurgency in villages across Qalamoun.
The fight is pitting some of the toughest elements on both sides of the civil war with clashes featuring Syrian paramilitary forces and Hezbollah fighters against battle-hardened rebel militias, including al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and an al-Qaida offshoot the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, commonly known as ISIS.
In an interview with VOA days before the battle for Yabrud started, a Hezbollah official, who declined to be named, said Lebanese Shiite fighters would not be in the vanguard of the assault on Yabrud but would “just have a logistics and intelligence role.” He added “it would not be like Qusair,” a reference to last year’s Hezbollah-led capture of another highly strategic town to the south of Yabrud that fell after a vicious siege and close-quarter combat.
The fall of Qusair boosted Syrian army morale and ushered in a string of Assad battlefield gains that the rebels still have not managed to staunch.
But the battle for Yabrud has prolonged into a more dogged struggle than many analysts had forecast, and has drawn in Hezbollah to engage more than planned, claim rebel fighters, who have drawn reinforcements from rebel-held Damascus suburbs.
Dueling claims over who has the edge in the battle prompted military analyst Aram Nerguizian of the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies to caution: “It is only natural for either side of a conflict to portray an image of strength, purpose and imminent success. Both sides have adapted their tactics and feel they have the upper hand.”
But he says the rebels are unlikely to be able to hold the town. “I am more skeptical about how the rebels can win out in the longer term. Their supply lines have thinned out while the regime and Hezbollah are both more secure and have momentum on their side, at least in the space between the Bekaa frontier and Damascus.”
According to the UN more than 10,000 people have fled to Lebanon from Yabrud, adding to sectarian tensions in the Bekaa Valley and straining the resources of aid agencies. As with the battle for Qusair last year, the fight for Yabrud is spilling over into Lebanon with rebels firing off retaliatory Grad rockets at Shiite towns just over the border.
Hezbollah has been especially eager to drive rebels from Yabrud because the town has played a role in a string of more than a dozen jihadist suicide bombings on Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon. Hezbollah and Lebanese officials say several of the cars used in the bombings were stolen in Lebanon but rigged with explosives in Yabrud before being driven back across the border.
The battle for Yabrud has triggered an online propaganda war in neighboring Lebanon. An anti-Hezbollah song written for the battle has been broadcast widely across the web. “The men of Qalamoun have prepared coffins for you,” the singer warns Hezbollah. “Party of Satan, we’ve had enough—we won’t retreat, no matter what.” The song’s purported lyricist, Marwan Dimashqiyyeh, a member of Lebanon’s Muslim Brotherhood branch, was found dead on February 25 inside his car in a town just to the north of Beirut. There was a gunshot wound to his head.
Islamic League political leader Azzam al-Ayyoubi, a friend of the dead man, insists his death couldn’t have come from suicide.