Syrian opposition regains upper hand in Qalamoun

Syrian opposition regains upper hand in Qalamoun
Analysis: Defeat by regime a year ago has been turned around with new tactics - but a new threat has appeared in the form of the IS, says Adnan Ali.
4 min read
20 April, 2015
Rebels have struck several victories against Hizballah fighters in Qalamoun [Anadolu]

The Syrian regime announced last March that it was fully in control of the city of Yabroud, Qalamoun, after kicking out opposition forces with the help of Hizballah fighters.

Much has changed in the year since, however. Opposition factions have changed their tactics, replacing the strategy of capture and hold with hit-and-run guerrilla warfare to drain and exhaust the regime forces in the area.

Emboldened by their success, opposition factions led by Jaish Tahrir al-Sham (army of liberation for Syria) launched the Darb al-Nawasi battle in eastern Qalamoun.

They managed to take over the Damascus-Baghdad highway - the main supply route for the regime and Hizballah - which reduced pressure on western Qalamoun.

Checkpoints near the Damir airbase and al-Taba, a radar site, were dealt with.

"The Darb al-Nawasi battle is going very well, with the participation of the Abu Bakr and the al-Sawarem brigades," said Zuhair Mohammad, the deputy commander of Jaish Tahrir al-Sham.

Jaish Tahrir al-Sham was created last year by a group of defectors under the command of captain Firas al-Bitar, with the aim of fighting only the regime and its militias. It denies any link with the Islamic State group.

The Darb al-Nawasi battle has coincided with attacks on Hizballah forces in the western Qalamoun mountain areas between Lebanon and Syria. Here, opposition forces took several checkpoints in Flita, al-Zabdani and other areas.

In addition, opposition factions, including the Nusra Front, have announced their control over five checkpoints in the Qalamoun heights, such as al-Mesh, Shaabat Hamida and al-Hamra, all near the town of Flita.

Activist Omar al-Qalamouni told al-Araby al-Jadeed that the opposition's control over these heights was highly significant, as it exposed the supply route through Lebanon's Arsal and Brital to Qalamoun.

Enter the Islamic State group

However, opposition forces face another threat, the IS group, which has reinforced its sites in the area, mainly at the expense of the opposition. IS fighters now control strategic areas northeast of Damascus and southeast of Homs.

"In a sudden night attack on rebel sites, the IS took over the area of al-Sahla, strategically located between the Damascus-Baghdad highway and the Qaryatayn-Homs highway", said Said Saif, of the Ahmed al-Abdu faction. "The IS lost more than 10 fighters during the operation, killing two rebels and capturing one."

"Rebels from the Ahmed al-Abdu faction, the Sharqiyah Lions Brigade and the Islam Brigade mobilised dozens of fighters to regain control of the strategic area, as it would allow them entry to the Syrian desert and the Jordanian borders, as well as northern Syria from the eastern Ghouta," he added.

Saif said the regime was working in cooperation with IS fighters.

"An IS convoy passed by the regime's checkpoints in Homs' eastern countryside without targeting it. The two sides are coordinating so the IS can launch its attack after the rebels announced the Darb al-Nawasi battle," he said.

Local activist Bassem Fouad told al-Araby al-Jadeed that contrary to what is being circulated, "the IS controls most of the western Qalamoun, not the regime, and the opposition's presence there is weak".

     An IS convoy passed by the regime's checkpoints in Homs without targeting it.

"The IS settled in the area a few months ago following its attack on the commandos regiment led by Araba Edris", which Fouad said was now stationed in Daraa, while "more than half of its fighters had no choice but to join the IS, as they could not withdraw anywhere and they had no support whatsoever".

"The IS, which tried to attack Hizballah sites inside Lebanon a few months ago, is currently focusing on preparing for a similar 'conquest' inside Lebanon, without caring about other factions that do not pose any threats to it," he said.

In a related context, the body of Yehia Zahra, a colonel and chief of the Qalamoun operations room, was found recently in the area of Ras al-Sinn in the Lebanese town of Arsal.

According to a military source in Qalamoun, speaking on conditions of anonymity, Zahra was found shot dead nine days after he was kidnapped by the IS from Arsal for trying to form a Free Syrian Army brigade in Qalamoun.

The source added that Zahra's relatives spoke to an IS leading figure in Arsal to negotiate the colonel's release. He confirmed to them that Zahra would be released in a few days, but he was killed and his body dumped on the outskirts of Arsal.

In addition, the source warned that the IS military campaign, which coincides with the FSA's battles against the regime, would eliminate the remaining FSA brigades, especially under the shortage of food and military supplies.

He also said that a number of commanders withdrew from Qalamoun due to these battles, including Abdullah al-Rifaei, a colonel who had been arrested by the Lebanese security authorities.

This is an edited translation of the original Arabic.