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Qalamoun rebels form
“Army of Conquest” coalition

Rebels reportedly launched their preemptive campaign against Hezbollah after failed negotiations for a localized ceasefire.

Nusra Front rebels in Qalamoun. (Twitter)

BEIRUT – Rebels fighting Hezbollah in Qalamoun officially announced the formation of a new coalition as Lebanese servicemen held hostage in the mountainous border region warned they faced execution.

 

“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,” the group announced midday Tuesday on its newly-created Twitter account.

 

The coalition has yet to issue a full statement on its creation, however the announcement follows days of media reports that rebels in the western slopes of the Qalamoun Mountains were planning to mimic the Army of Conquest alliance that pushed back regime troops in Idlib earlier in the spring.

 

Last week, a number of rebel groups formed the “Cling to the Rope of God Gathering,” which on Monday said it was launching a “wide-scale” offensive in Qalamoun against the regime and Hezbollah.

 

The same morning, Nusra and allied insurgents began a preemptive military campaign against Hezbollah along the Lebanese border, where the Shiite party has been widely expected to start its own major military campaign.

 

Alaraby Aljadeed reported Sunday that the Army of Conquest of Qalamoun would bring together the Cling to the Rope of God Gathering, Nusra, the FSA-affiliated Army of Qalamoun and Ahrar al-Sham.

 

“We will pay the price”

 

 

As rebels ramped up their operations in Qalamoun, Al-Nusra Front released a video Tuesday morning in which eight Shiite security personnel kidnapped from Lebanon’s Arsal during fighting in August 2014 delivered a coerced statement to their coreligionists in Lebanon.

 

“I send a message to the Shiites… if the Lebanese army is dragged into the [Qalamoun] battle alongside Hezbollah, [we] will pay the price,” one of the hostages warned in an implicit reference to execution.

 

“[The hostages] will pay the price of actions committed by people who are not being controlled in Lebanon,” another kidnapped servicemen said in the video.

 

Yet another hostage called on the Shiite community to “revolt against Hezbollah because it wants to kill us in order to say that Al-Nusra Front wants to kill us in order to designate them as a terrorist group.”

 

“Al-Nusra doesn’t want to occupy Lebanon, they can easily do it and overrun all the defenses… stay aloof from the party [Hezbollah] they are dragging you in to a losing battle they are unable to fight.”

 

The hostages also issued warnings to the Lebanese army, with one calling on it not to intervene in Qalamoun or else “it will pay the price and also make us pay the price.”

 

Nusra and ISIS are currently holding over 20 Lebanese soldiers and ISF members. Three have been killed by their captors; one shot by Nusra and two beheaded by ISIS.

 

Qalamoun fighting

 

The battlefield balance in Qalamoun remains murky after rebels launched their offensive, with the two sides locked in fierce fighting since Monday morning amid heavy regime airstrikes.

 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Tuesday that six rebel fighters have been killed in the fighting, adding that pro-regime forces had also suffered losses.

 

“Regime forces shelled the Al-Jubbah and Assal al-Ward areas” where rebels attacked Hezbollah, the monitoring group added.

 

The Observatory said yesterday that rebels had advanced during the day following their morning offensive; however, there have been little other reports on the clashes.  

 

The pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar claimed that Monday morning’s attack on Hezbollah and Syrian Army positions in the mountains around Al-Jubbah and Assal al-Ward “seemed like reconnaissance fire and an attempt to achieve a breach from the east into the Syrian interior.”

 

“The attack was a total failure. Thirteen of the attackers were killed and dozens of injuries were inflicted in their ranks.”

 

However, the Lebanese daily added that one Hezbollah fighter had been killed.

 

The report then cited a “militant source” as saying that “the greater battle has not begun” and that it “will be declared in the coming hours.”

 

Failed Hezbollah-rebel negotiations

 

The rebel offensive against Hezbollah reportedly comes after the Shiite group mad a failed attempt to pacify the Al-Jubbah area between the Lebanese border and the vital Damascus-Homs highway.

 

Syrian armed opposition sources told Alaraby Aljadeed in a Tuesday report that Hezbollah “entered negotiations concerning certain villages in the area, most prominently Al-Jubbah.”

 

Hezbollah proposed a ceasefire in Al-Jubbah that would have seen rebel fighters in the Qalamoun Mountains move into the area while National Defense Force militia members would also have maintain their presence, according to the daily.

 

“The conditions set forth by Hezbollah also included control by the party of the mountain peaks overlooking the village, and the provision of guarantees that its positions and the positions of the Syrian army would not be attacked,” the sources added.

 

The sources explained that the proposal was rejected by Nusra, Liwa al-Ghuraba and Jaysh al-Qalamoun, the largest Free Syrian Army group in the rugged mountain region.

 

Alaraby Aljadeed added that the Nusra Front then “responded to the negotiations” with an attack on Hezbollah and Syrian army positions in Al-Jubbah and the nearby Ras al-Marra.

Nusra Front rebels in Qalamoun. (Twitter)

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.