Alex Rowell

New Qalamoun offensive may further destabilize Lebanon

The battle for Yabrud has already brought new refugees, and may further fuel jihadist attacks

Syrian families queue to register with the UN in Arsal, December 2013

When in November 2013 the Syrian regime and its allies began their determined campaign to conquer Qalamoun, the rocky highlands extending for some 70km along the Syrian-Lebanese border, there was always inevitably going to come a day of reckoning for the town of Yabrud, the comparatively developed and prosperous multi-faith “capital” of the strategic region.


That day appeared to arrive Wednesday, as regime shelling of the rebel-held town – underway since Friday – escalated into at least a dozen air strikes, according to local residents, international monitors, and fresh video footage. “The battle has begun,” said Qalamoun-based media activist Omar al-Qalamouni to NOW. “And it’s going to be bloody.”


Indeed, observers point to several factors that suggest the coming offensive will be especially intense. Beyond Yabrud’s symbolic value, it’s also one of the last remaining lifelines connecting rebels in Qalamoun to allies in the adjacent Lebanese town of Arsal. “Controlling Yabrud, from the regime’s perspective, means cutting the path to Arsal,” said Qalamouni. The rebels’ continued dominance over the town also threatens the regime’s hold on the arterial Damascus-Homs highway.


Moreover, the prominent regime ally Hezbollah has made its own case for the significance of holding Yabrud. In a speech Friday, the Party’s deputy secretary-general, Naim Qassem, claimed the town was “the original source of the explosive-rigged cars” that have targeted Lebanese civilian centers in recent weeks. Whether or not this is in fact true, it suggests Hezbollah will play an active role in the coming battle, said Qalamouni.


“Hezbollah will surely participate, because it’s mainly their battle. They’re the ones advertising it,” he told NOW.


The general strategy of the regime and its allies will likely take the form of fierce aerial bombardment followed by a ground campaign, according to Charles Lister, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.


“The Syrian military has perfected a strategy of imposing a sustained level of bombardment on an area and its surroundings in order to flush out civilians and pave the way for a ground assault targeting any fighters that remain,” Lister told NOW. “As such, artillery and air strikes will likely continue to intensify in the next day or two and clashes around the town will steadily escalate to the point at which an actual offensive begins en masse on the town itself.”


As against this, it’s unclear what, if anything, the opposition can do to meaningfully check the offensive once it’s in full swing. According to both Lister and a source who has recently visited Yabrud several times, the vast majority of rebels in the town belong to local, comparatively ill-equipped brigades, as opposed to the more effective forces such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham which preponderate elsewhere (though the latter groups, Lister believes, may later decide to join the fight in Yabrud). The most probable overall strategy, says Lister, will be to try and divert the regime’s attention away from the town to whatever extent possible.


“As in the past, rebels in the wider Qalamoun region will seek to carry out diversionary operations in an attempt to force a division of military personnel away from Yabrud,” he told NOW. “Targeted attacks on military positions, car bombings, and suicide attacks are all possible.”


Adding to Lebanon’s woes


Lebanon was never likely to avoid feeling the effects of such a significant battle so close to its border, and indeed, Yabrud residents have already started arriving in Arsal seeking refuge, according to UN Refugee Agency spokesperson Joelle Eid. Should the population in Yabrud and its surroundings become entirely displaced, Arsal may be faced with a new influx numbering in the tens of thousands, according to the aforementioned source, who requested anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to the press.


“Approximately, we’re talking about some 70,000 residents who would move in the direction of Damascus, and perhaps 50,000 who could end up in Arsal,” he told NOW.


The refugee burden, however, may not be the worst of the repercussions for Lebanon. Reports earlier this week of Hezbollah’s preparation for Yabrud fuelled concerns among some analysts of a consequent increase in reprisal attacks on Lebanese civilians carried out by extremist Islamists. A number of groups with ties to Syrian jihadist brigades, such as Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), have claimed responsibility for deadly explosions and suicide bombings in predominantly Shiite areas of the country in recent weeks, typically justifying them as responses to Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria.


“A defeat [for the rebels in Yabrud] could potentially encourage further retaliatory attacks inside Lebanon, both in the Beqaa and in Beirut,” Lister told NOW, “although it should be noted that the motivation for such attacks already exists.”


Indeed, with five vehicle explosions in Lebanon in 2014 alone – four of them claimed by jihadist groups – there has already been unprecedented appetite among Sunni extremists for the kind of wanton slaughter of Shiite civilians more readily associated with Baghdad than Beirut.


And if Wednesday’s discovery by the Lebanese army of two cars rigged to explode – one of them in Arsal itself – is anything to go by, that appetite is showing little sign of abating any time soon.


Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

Civilians from Yabrud have already arrived in Lebanon’s Arsal, seeking refuge from intense aerial bombardment across the border. (AFP Photo/STR)

"Artillery and air strikes will likely continue to intensify in the next day or two and clashes around the town will steadily escalate to the point at which an actual offensive begins en masse on the town itself.”