Syria's Assad downplays losses as rebels pre-empt Qalamoun battle

Syria's Assad downplays losses as rebels pre-empt Qalamoun battle
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday described his regime heavy recent losses as 'setbacks', with the Hizballah chief insisting his side still has the upper-hand in Qalamoun.
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The Syrian regime has recently lost several strategic towns in the north. (AFP)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that his side is fighting "a war, not a battle," in his first comments after several regime defeats.

"We are not talking about tens or hundreds but thousands of battles and ... it is the nature of battles for there to be advances and retreats, victories and losses, ups and downs," he said at a rare public appearance on Syria's Martyrs Day. 

Al-Assad's comments come two days after Syrian rebels announced the formation of a new coalition in Qalamoun, the Army of Conquest of Qalamoun, and launched a pre-emptive attack on the Lebanese Hizballah positions Monday, allegedly killing Hizballah Commander, Ali al-Alyan, among others. 

On its newly-created Twitter account, the rebel coalition tweeted "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". 

A source close to al-Nusra Front said that the Army of Conquest's attack against Hizballah means that "the battle in the [Qalamoun] region has begun".  

Qalamoun battle tied to fate of hostages 

On the eve of the rebels' pre-emptive attack, Hizballah Chief, Hassan Nasrallah, appeared on TV Tuesday to downplay the claims that the battle has begun. Nasrallah insistsed that the upper-hand in deciding when battles start, where, and when remain with his movement. 

Nasrallah said rebel forces in the mountainous border area posed an unacceptable threat to Lebanon's security, adding that
"this issue needs radical treatment. We are talking about a real aggression that exists and is present," Nasrallah said of the militants in the Qalamoun area. 

"The (Lebanese) state is not able to address this issue... so we will proceed with the necessary treatment and assume the responsibility and consequences." 

The Qalamoun region straddles the Syria-Lebanon border and was a stronghold for rebel groups until a major operation by Syrian regime troops backed by Hizbollah fighters last year.

While most of the region was recaptured by the regime, rebel factions remain entrenched across the mountains that run directly along the border, which are porous and ill-defined. 

From there, al-Nusra Front has launched attacks inside Lebanon, including in August 2014, when militants briefly overran the eastern Lebanese town of Arsal. 

A truce back then ended the attack, but the groups took several dozen Lebanese security forces with them as hostages when they withdrew from the town into the surrounding mountains. 

They have since killed four of them and Al-Nusra on Tuesday released a video showing some of the remaining 25 hostages warning they would pay the price of any operation in Qalamoun.  

Following a cabinet meeting, Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad al-Mashnouq spoke about the real threat in the battle of Qalamoun between Hizballah and the Syrian oppsition:

"Any military action by an entity other than the Lebanese army will negatively affect the case of the soldiers", he said, referring to the Lebanese troops kidnapped by al-Nusra. 

Several voices inside Lebanon citicised Hizballah's war hype when the focus should have been the release of the hostages. 

The Lebanese Future Movement, known as the pary of the Sunni moderates in Lebanon, reiterated its condemnation of Hizballah's involvement in Syria. The movement held "Hizballah responsible for anything that may affect Lebanon its people due its participation in the battle of Qalamoun". 

After its weekly meeting, the movement stated that "Lebanon must benefit from Security Council resolution 1701, which allowed the Lebanese government to request assistance from UNIFIL to help the Lebanese army secure the borders".

Nasrallah did not mention the hostages in his speech on Qalamoun Tuesday. Al-Nusra might seek to push Hizballah into a full-scale war which can be used to justify the execution of Lebanese hostages and consequently spark outrage against Hizballah in Lebanon.