Losing Qalamoun would be a blow, cutting off access to smuggling trails and the highway connecting Homs, Damascus, and the coast.
A renewed Syrian Army offensive against rebel-held areas of the Qalamoun region has hastened an exodus of refugees into Lebanon and raised questions about how long the rebels can hold the strategic territory north of Damascus.
Wounded Syrians newly arrived in Lebanon from Qalamoun say that rebels repulsed a regime push last week, but that supplies of weapons and ammunition are dwindling. They ponder their long-term ability to remain in the besieged area. (See map at left.)
“The Army has not made much progress yet and the villages are still with us. They tried to enter the villages, but we forced them back and now they are using jets and artillery against us,” says Abu Muatassam, a rebel fighter from Qarah, a Qalamoun town that fell to the regime in November. “We are running short of weapons and ammunition. It’s not too bad for now, but we don’t know how we will be able to obtain more later on.”
Abu Muatassam was injured eight days earlier, when his vehicle was ambushed by Syrian soldiers and Hezbollah fighters. He spoke from a bed in a newly built hospital on the outskirts of Arsal, a Sunni town separated from the Syrian border by about six miles of desolate, mountainous terrain. Numerous smuggling trails, a lifeline for rebels and civilians in Qalamoun, wind across the border, but drives carry the risk of being hit by helicopters or anti-tank missiles.
The Syrian Army launched an offensive to retake the area in November. The main highway linking Damascus to the city of Homs and on to the Mediterranean coast – a vital lifeline for the Assad regime – passes through Qalamoun. After initial swift progress in which the Syrian Army seized the towns of Qarah, Deir Attiyah, and Nabk from the rebels, the campaign faltered due to bad weather and a need to redeploy some troops to other areas of fighting.
A couple months in, the besieged towns and villages have little electricity and water and food stocks are low. According to the United Nations, an estimated 10,000 Syrians have arrived in the town from Qalamoun since Feb. 10, when the Syrian Army renewed its assault.
“We lived a hard life in the mountains after Qarah fell, but we are a hard people,” says Abu Muatassam. “We lived on bread and tomatoes and drank melted snow.”
Soft-spoken Abu Muatassam claims to have fought close-quarter battles with Hezbollah fighters, whom he branded as “cowards and murderers." He declined to say to which rebel group he was attached, but said that Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, “has a special place in our hearts."
Abu Omar, an Arsal resident who assists Syrian rebels, says that the rebels are holding their ground for now but admitted for the first time that he thought the Assad regime could eventually regain Qalamoun.
“Look at what they are using against us now,” he says. “Barrel bombs, Scud missiles. How can we defend against this? They could take Qalamoun in the long run, but it will cost them a heavy price in casualties."
Hezbollah is also taking casualties. According to rebels in Arsal, as well as media reports, 23 Hezbollah fighters were killed and seven pickup trucks destroyed on Monday in an ambush just across the border in Syria on a smuggling trail southwest of Yabroud.
Hezbollah desperately wants Qalamoun back in regime hands. Some of the car bombs that have targeted Shiite areas of Lebanon in the past nine months are believed to have been prepared in Yabroud prior to being driven across the open border via Arsal. The suicide bombers struck again Wednesday morning, when two car bombs exploded close to the Iranian cultural center in southern Beirut, killing six people and wounding more than 100. The attack was claimed by an Al Qaeda-affiliated group.
A single asphalt road connects Arsal to Shiite areas of the Bekaa Valley, where Hezbollah has strong support. Lebanese soldiers and military intelligence officers man two checkpoints on the three mile-stretch of road between Arsal and the neighboring Shiite village of Labwe. But on Tuesday afternoon, a third checkpoint had been hastily established near the entrance of Labwe, this one manned by Hezbollah fighters.
“Go back to Arsal. Rockets are hitting Labwe,” yells a Hezbollah fighter carrying a walkie-talkie and rifle.
Armed and uniformed Hezbollah fighters hurried through the olive trees beside the road. Minutes earlier, seven Grad rockets had struck Labwe and areas to the south and west. The Lebanese Army later said in a statement that the rockets were fired from Syria, but sources close to Hezbollah claim they were launched from Lebanese territory outside Arsal. A narrow lane running parallel to the Arsal-Labwe road was blocked at the entrance to the Shiite village by another Hezbollah checkpoint. Four Hezbollah men, all wearing camouflage uniforms and wielding rifles, asked this reporter and his passenger to step out while they inspected the car.
“I am sorry,” apologized one fighter in accented English as he patted down this reporter.
“We are sorry to have detained you but car bombs are coming from Arsal,” says the leader of the checkpoint, motioning that the car could proceed. “I hope you understand.”