Ana Maria Luca

When the snow melts in Qalamoun

Combatants, motivations and fighting strategies on the Lebanese-Syrian border

Lebanese army troops drive armoured personnel carriers (APC) in the village of Ras Baalbak in the eastern Bekaa Valley near the border with Syria during clashes between Islamist fighters and Lebanese troops on 23 January 2015. (AFP/STR)

No great battle can take place in the Qalamoun Mountains during the winter. Layers of snow can reach two meters in some parts of the Syrian region neighboring eastern Lebanon and people have a hard time finding enough food to survive. But spring is coming says Ahmad Qusair, a Syrian and acting spokesperson of the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution.


“There will be more fighting,” he told NOW. “The revolutionaries will not calm down until they liberate Syria.”  


But it’s not the Syrian government’s army that the rebel brigades in the Qalamoun Mountains are getting ready to attack; rather, it’s the Lebanese Army post in the eastern Bekaa Valley villages of Ras Baalbek and Arsal. Arabic newspaper Ad Diyar reported on Tuesday that 3,000 to 4,000 armed men were on the Lebanese border. It also reported that there is coordination between the jihadists fighting for the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.


The Lebanese Army (LAF) has reportedly mobilized a large number of reinforcements in the region. Last Thursday, the LAF conducted an offensive against rebels in the Ras Baalbek area, taking control of the Al-Jarash and Harf al-Jarash peaks, as well as northeast Tallet al-Hamra. According to a Lebanese Army press release, the operation was a success and ended without any injuries to LAF troops, who also managed to confiscate a number of IEDs, some light weapons and ammunition.


The standoff has been ongoing for months—since August 2014—when jihadists invaded the village of Arsal and kidnapped 30 soldiers and police officers. There have been occasional clashes in recent months between the LAF and jihadists entrenched in the Ras Baalbek-Arsal area. But both security analysts and Syrian activists expect more trouble as spring settles in. 



The battles of the Qalamoun


The battles of the Qalamoun region started in November 2013, with Syrian Army strikes on Qara, a town in the vicinity of the highway that connects Damascus to Homs. Nusra Front rebels dominated the region at the time and they retaliated with suicide bombings after the Syrian Army gained control over Qara. At the end of November, the rebels took the Christian town of Maaloula, only to lose it to government forces again.


In winter 2013-2014 the rebels made their first incursions into Lebanon. Hezbollah ambushed a group of them in Nahle, right across the border from the Qalamoun Mountains, and killed 32 fighters who were trying to infiltrate Lebanon. In the meantime, Hezbollah and the Syrian Army captured 70%of the Qalamoun region. After the battle of Yabroud, in March 2014, Syrian rebels continued to flee into Lebanon through mountain smugglers’ routes in north and east Lebanon.


By 26 April, when some rebels in Zabadani surrendered to the Syrian Army and government forces captured the town, it appeared to be the end of the main rebel stronghold on the Lebanese border.



The rebels of the Qalamoun Mountains


But that was not the end. In mid-2014 Hezbollah and the Syrian Army battled the remaining rebels in the Qalamoun Mountains after a few guerilla attacks. The offensive led to the invasion of Arsal and the conflict with the LAF in the eastern Bekaa region.


Syrian activists say the rebels in the Qalamoun region are now divided among the Nusra Front, some moderate brigades, and some fighters that pledged allegiance to ISIS. According to Qusair, there are fighters and brigade leaders in the Nusra Front who don’t want to fight the Lebanese Army and who believe that the hostage crisis was a mistake committed by a brigade whose leaders they want to expel. “[Nusra’s] purpose is to fight the Assad regime, not the Lebanese Army. But the situation on the border is tense because of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria. Hezbollah has our blood on its hands. Eventually, Hezbollah will be exhausted in Syria and it will have to surrender its weapons to the Lebanese government,” he said. “This will be the gift of the people of Syria for the people of Lebanon and it will come at the expense of our blood.”


A Syrian activist who wished to remain anonymous told NOW that the Qalamoun region was once a Free Syrian Army stronghold, with the moderate and secular brigades dominating the fight against the Syrian Army and against Hezbollah. “But with no support,” he said, “people have to adapt to the new rules of the game, because they have no other option.” The activist also explained how Al-Qaeda manages to attract followers: “You know, they send two people to meet with every rebel group; one with the money and another one with the brains. They meet the rebel group, they pay them, and they recruit them.”



A matter of supplies and family


According to Nizar Abder Qader, a political analyst and retired LAF general, the reasons the rebels in Qalamoun—be they jihadist or not—are trying to infiltrate Lebanon go beyond Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. “The villages in east Bekaa are essential for the fighters’ everyday survival: they need food supplies and military supplies while Qalamoun is completely isolated from the rest of Syria,” Abdel Qader told NOW. “Another interest in the Lebanese border area would be the Syrian refugees who took shelter here. Most are from the Qalamoun region. Most of the rebels in various militia groups operating in Qalamoun have originated from the region itself. The refugees are their families. They need to keep in touch with them,” he added.


But Abdel Qader also says that just now the rebels are paying for what he says was their biggest mistake: invading Arsal in August 2014. The LAF had not directly confronted the Syrian rebels before that. The Syrian activists NOW spoke to also called the invasion of Arsal a mistake. “What happened in Arsal involved the Islamic State, another Syrian activist speaking on condition of anonymity told NOW. “Abu-Malek Al Shami, the Emir of Nusra Front, told us—the members of the first delegation [negotiating for the release of the Lebanese kidnapped soldiers]—that it was a mistake committed by one brigade. He said that eventually the leaders of the brigade will be dealt with.”


But in Abdel Qader’s opinion, it’s too late for the rebels to make up with the LAF, even if they want to. “I don’t think that with all the army right now […] all the forces deployed will tolerate right now any type of crack in its defense strategy,” he said.



Only on the defensive


Abdel Qader also excluded any decisive fighting between the LAF and the Syrian rebels. “The Lebanese Army’s mission—immediate and in the future—is not really to fight these people and enter Syrian territory. They are not at war against them. The Lebanese Army will keep defending the Lebanese villages trying to obstruct any attempt on the jihadists behalf to penetrate the north Bekaa Valley or, maybe, in the central Bekaa Valley in the future, should they decide to open a front here in spring,” he said. “Fighting the jihadists and non-jihadist rebels in the Qalamoun area, in the Syrian territory, has been the mission of the Syrian Army and of Hezbollah in the past months.”


Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609


Amin Nasr and Myra Abdallah contributed with translation.

Syrian rebels are trying to infiltrate Lebanon, above all, to get food and military supplies, but their real fight is with Hezbollah and the Syrian Army inside Syria. (AFP/STR)

There will be more fighting. The revolutionaries will not calm down until they liberate Syria.”