Northern Lebanon prepares for violent spillover from Syrian battle for Qalmoun

Published October 21st, 2013 - 07:36 GMT
Residents in northern Lebanon's town of Arsal are preparing for the battle for Qalmoun in Syria, which is expected to spillover into Lebanese territory due to Hezbollah's involvement in the civil war. The battle for Qalmoun is expected to be a sequel to the fight for Qusair in June. (AFP/File)
Residents in northern Lebanon's town of Arsal are preparing for the battle for Qalmoun in Syria, which is expected to spillover into Lebanese territory due to Hezbollah's involvement in the civil war. The battle for Qalmoun is expected to be a sequel to the fight for Qusair in June. (AFP/File)

Amid media reports pointing to signs that the Syrian army is preparing to launch an attack to regain rebel-held areas in the strategic border area of Qalamoun, officials in the adjacent Lebanese village of Arsal say they will only take up arms if provoked by Hezbollah.

In Arsal, the anticipated battle in Qalamoun was the talk of the town, with residents speculating many scenarios. The worst entailed Hezbollah dispersing rocket launchers along the western mountain trails of Baalbek and Hermel facing the Qalamoun range, which includes Arsal.

Residents expressed fear that their village would be seized in the attack, cutting off access to surrounding mostly Shiite villages, on which they are dependent economically to sustain their livelihoods. The main road leading to Arsal passes through the Shiite town of Labweh, which is controlled by Hezbollah.

The Qalamoun region is a rugged expanse extending from rural Damascus and flanking Lebanon’s borders to the east. The area, some 80 kilometers long and 30-40 kilometers wide, is held by Syrian opposition forces and is a crucial launching pad for attacks against the regime.

The fight in Qalamoun is expected to be the sequel to the battle of Qusair, which took place earlier in the summer and saw the Hezbollah-backed Syrian army achieve a decisive victory, tipping the military balance in the regime’s favor.

Strategically, the area is vital for both the Syrian regime and opposition forces. For the regime, controlling Qalamoun would ensure a secure link connecting Damascus to Homs and cut off the supply routes from Arsal that are allegedly arming rebels.

Securing the area would also connect regime-held areas to Syria’s mountainous coastline, north of Latakia, an area inhabited mainly by President Bashar Assad’s minority Alawite sect.

Additionally, if regime forces prove victorious in Qalamoun, this would isolate surrounding opposition-held areas and sever their connection to Lebanon’s eastern border.

As the battle looms, key figures in Hezbollah are growing apprehensive of the threat posed by the majority-Sunni Arsal, where dozens of village residents have openly admitted to participating in the fight against the Syrian regime. The village is inhabited by nearly 40,000 Lebanese on top of some 30,000 Syrian refugees.

One such fighter was Omar Atrash, a resident who was killed in a rocket attack near the border last week. Atrash was wanted by Lebanese authorities for alleged involvement in terrorist attacks.

Qalamoun is the remaining lifeline for rebel forces along the Syrian-Lebanese border, and food, medicine and ammunition are believed to be smuggled through it.

The Syrian opposition is already heavily present in a substantial number of Syrian villages straddling the border with Lebanon.

These include the villages of Zabadani, Sirghaya, Ras al-Maarra, Qara, Flita and Nabek – all located at an altitude that ranges between 1,250 and 1,400 meters above sea level and inhabited by around 2 million people, not including internally displaced Syrians.

Reports have alleged that around 25,000 fighters, linked to Salafist groups, have gathered in these villages preparing to defend their ground once regime forces strike, prompting Hezbollah to gather thousands of fighters to support the Syrian army.

Further complicating the delicate sectarian balance in the area is the possibility that Hezbollah might have to storm Arsal should rebel forces take refuge there, raising concern that the move might lead to grievous retaliatory attacks.

Despite the concern and anxieties of his residents, Arsal’s deputy mayor, Ahmad Fliti, was unfazed by the possibility of battle.

He said that if the Lebanese state truly wanted to safeguard the village from siege and destruction, then checkpoints, manned by Army soldiers, would be erected at the entrances of the main valley that surrounds the village, which is also the main road used to allegedly smuggle goods and arms to Syria.

He said that with the attack, the Syrian regime chiefly aimed to cut supply routes that pass through four Syrian villages, namely Qara, Flita, Graijar and Maara.

According to Fliti, the majority of Arsal’s residents didn’t support the presence of fundamentalist rebels. He said that reports of hundreds of Arsal residents participating in the fighting were exaggerated, adding that the number was closer to 20 men, all of whom were being pursued by Lebanese state authorities.

Fliti excluded the possibility that the Qalamoun battle would erupt any time soon because of recent positive international developments spearheaded by Iran, the main supporter of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.

Ali Hujeiri, an Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya official in Arsal, shared Fliti’s outlook and agreed that the situation in the town had been inflated by media reports, whether regarding the number of residents fighting in Syria or the degree to which the village was ready to support the Syrian uprising.

Hujeiri said the village would not interfere in the Qalamoun battle because of the 20 kilometers of rough terrain that separated the village from the closest Syrian village, Flita.

He emphasized that Arsal residents would take up arms and fight only if provoked first by Hezbollah. But, he said, the majority of residents did not support any decision to take part in fighting at all.

A Future Movement source based in the area told The Daily Star that Hezbollah’s participation in Qalamoun would only feed sectarian tensions, but maintained that it was unlikely the resistance party would take up arms alongside the regime this time because “of the losses it suffered in the Qusair battle.”

The Qalamoun battle would require a large number of high-caliber fighters trained to fight in mountainous areas, the source said.

The source added that discussions were currently underway among officials to establish Army units along the borders facing Arsal, to Maaraboun and Tfeil, to prevent opposition fighters from entering Lebanese villages.

He added that Hezbollah had backed the idea of installing Army units in key areas.

But a military source close to Hezbollah said he expected a comprehensive battle to control the region would be postponed until the spring, and would include Hezbollah.

The party’s armed wing is currently training several fighting units to prepare for the especially rough terrains of Qalamoun, the source said.

The source added that the impending Qalamoun battle was part and parcel of the regime’s plan to secure the capital and end fighting in rural areas.

In particular, the source said, the battle would seek to secure the Homs-Damascus road and cut all alleged supply routes to the Syrian opposition from Arsal, so that fighters dependent on smuggled assistance would be left to fend for themselves.

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