Qalamoun: a fight to the death?

Qalamoun: a fight to the death?
Comment: The Syrian regime and Hizballah are facing a decisive battle in Qalamoun as opposition forces gain ground, says Ali Baydoun.
5 min read
13 May, 2015
Hizballah's full entrenchment in Syria has been costly [AFP]
Since the outset of the Syrian crisis we have witnessed many battles that have promised to change the course of the war. 

The Assad regime has outlived the expectations of many. However, as we enter the fifth year of the crisis the tide seems to be shifting in favour of the opposition.

April was a disastrous month for the Syrian army and its allies, who suffered heavy casualties and lost large areas of territory. The northwestern town of Idlib became the second provincial capital to fall to the opposition, after Raqqa which is now the unofficial capital of the Islamic State group.

Setting the stage
     As we enter the fifth year of the crisis the tide seems to be shifting in favour of the opposition.

In the early stages of the conflict the main armed opposition group, branded the Free Syrian Army, did a masterful job of convincing the US and western powers it was a moderate, capable fighting force.

As a result, the US has given it substantial military and logistical support in the belief that arming the rebels was a more viable alternative to air raids or boots on the ground.

As rebel factions began to gain territory and win over defectors from the Syrian army it became abundantly clear: the Assad regime could not survive the war alone. While it received political backing from world powers including China and Russia, it still needed considerable support on the battlefield.

Damascus served as the hub of the so called "Shia Crescent", in the Levant, or as it preferred to be described the "Axis of Resistance". This axis stretched from Tehran via Damascus to Lebanon's Hizballah strongholds. Thus, Hizballah was thrust into the battle to reinforce its strategic ally.

Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah's secretary general, found himself in the unenviable position of justifying his group's military involvement to preserve the regime. 

This task was further complicated because the group had openly supported other Arab Spring movements to topple governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Early on, Hizballah said it was its duty to protect Lebanese border villages and Shia shrines in Syria, notably the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque south of Damascus.

Eventually it became obvious the Lebanese group that had enjoyed popular support across the Arab and Muslim world, was not in Syria for specific missions. It has become just as integral to the regime's survival as the Syrian army itself.

At a crossroads

Hizballah's full entrenchment in Syria has been costly, with casualties far greater than those suffered in the July 2006 war with Israel. However, it has been extremely effective at turning battles in favour of the regime, and even fully controlling key cities and towns.

Perhaps the most prominent example of its success was the swift and decisive victory in Qusayr, an important regime stronghold straddling the southwestern border with Lebanon overlooking the Hizballah controlled area of Hermel.

Today, Hizballah and the Syrian army face a battle which could prove to be the most crucial of the conflict. The battle for the mountainous Qalamoun region is important for many reasons.

The peaks of Qalamoun peer over Hizballah heartland in eastern Lebanon, including the town of Baalbek. The region also offers an important supply line to Damascus in the south.

Recent losses in Jisr al-Shughour and Idlib in western Syria were attributed to a revamped, unified rebel front calling themselves Jaish al-Fath. This collective of rebel factions includes various factions such as al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front. They have also coordinated with more moderate elements in the remnants of the Free Syrian Army. 
     Hizballah and the Syrian Army face a battle which could prove to be the most crucial of the conflict.

Early reports from Qalamoun indicate that Hizballah and the Syrian army have advanced, but the battle is far from over. One thing is clear, with the help of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard command Hizballah is now in the driver's seat in this battle as well as on several other fronts.

Increased Iranian-Hizballah command over operations did not go down well with many top military and intelligence commanders in Syria. This included Rustom Ghazaleh, who was reportedly killed by the regime after disagreements about Iranian influence.

The Syrian army is suffering from low morale and depleted resources, especially manpower. It is hard to dispute that most of Hizballah's military strength is now committed to Syria. Many observers estimate that less than a quarter of Hizballah's fighters are actively protecting the southern front with Israel. This further underscores its unwillingness to resume hostilities with their neighbour to the south.

The battle for Qalamoun also comes at a time when Hizballah's main backers in Tehran are close to a nuclear deal with the US. As Iran-US relations continue to warm, we are left wondering how long Iran will continue to stand by the embattled Syrian regime.

Iran now has an opportunity to lift the crippling sanctions that have crippled its economy, and a chance to rejoin the international community. However this could force it to revisit its staunch support of Assad.

For Assad, a loss at Qalamoun could mean the end of the road. It would also be a severe hit for Hizballah, which has been demonised in the "Arab Street" thanks in large part to influential Arab media outlets like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, who have slammed the group for their involvement in Syria.

With the loss of hundreds of fighters and regional popular support, Hizballah is betting it all on Assad clinging to power, a scenario which is looking less likely every day.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.