Taking the Lead, Hizballah Girds for Key Syria Battle on Assad’s Behalf

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SANA / EPA

A Syrian army troop patrol in al-Qalamoun Hills, an area in northern rural Damascus, Oct. 13, 2013

Throughout the bloody Syrian conflict, the ruling regime of President Bashar Assad has derided the armed opposition for its reliance on foreign fighters, usually seasoned militants that come from the battlefields of Chechnya, Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iraq. But as a new campaign is set to start in the mountainous corridor between Damascus and the Lebanese border, it is becoming increasingly clear that the government is just as dependent on outsiders for success. In Qalamoun, a strategic region that has been in rebel hands for most of the war, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hizballah is preparing to take on rebels in a drawn-out fight that could dictate the outcome of the Syrian conflict.

The government’s plan to wrest Qalamoun from rebel hands has been long in the planning, an obvious extension of June’s successful campaign to take, with Hizballah’s help, the town of Qusayr, a key rebel stronghold just north of Qalamoun. In regaining Qalamoun, the regime hopes to secure a vital corridor linking Damascus to the coastal province of Latakia, home to the Mediterranean port of Tartous and inhabited by Assad’s Alawite sect. The rebels depend on Qalamoun’s shared border with Lebanon to smuggle in supplies and weapons from supporters in Lebanon. “If the regime takes Qalamoun, it could cause a lot of damage to rebel groups,” says Phillip Smyth, a research fellow at the University of Maryland who specializes in Hizballah and Shi‘ite militias in Syria.

Last week, as Hizballah units prepared for imminent battle in Qalamoun, TIME was able to join some of their forces in a brief foray across the Syrian border from Lebanon to visit a pair of bases in the area’s north. The bases were small — one housed 35 fighters, and the other only 20. But the men were well armed with rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47s, truck-mounted artillery guns and sniper riffles. They all wore the camouflage of Hizballah’s elite special forces. While the immediate area was quiet, the distant thunder of bombs could be heard coming from the village of Mheen, farther to the north, where Syrian government forces battled with the rebels.

“If we don’t defend the Syrian regime, it would fall within two hours,” said Ali, a 27-year-old Lebanese fighter who has served with Hizballah for more than 10 years. He requested that only his first name be used. “Our leadership [in Lebanon] took the decision that it would not be acceptable for Syria to fall [to the Sunni-dominated rebels] because we would be encircled by enemies in Syria and Israel.” (The government arms depot in Mheen has since been captured by the rebels, according to the supreme military commander of the Free Syrian Army, General Salim Idriss, in an interview with Al Arabia TV on Nov. 6.)

Unlike the battle for Qusayr, Qalamoun, with its mountain redoubts, caves and unmapped goat tracks, will not be a set piece battle with clear front lines and decisive victories. Instead it will resemble a guerrilla-type campaign that could continue well into next spring. For that reason, says Smyth, Assad has turned to Hizballah to take the lead. Assad’s military, while still strong, is spread thin. “There is a lot of strain on the soldiers, and the leadership doesn’t trust Sunnis in the ranks not to defect,” says Smyth. Nor can the Syrian army’s new conscripts be expected to do well in such a complex situation. “Hizballah is better equipped. If Assad is going to launch any real offense to secure a strategic zone, he is going to depend on Hizballah.”

And Hizballah is gearing up for Qalamoun with relish. Already the militia has released a slick propaganda video about its preparations for battle, set to a stirring martial beat and full of taunts against the rebels. “After Qusayr it will be Qalamoun,” goes one verse. “You collected the armies of the world and said we will occupy Syria … the heroes are coming and ISIS will be humiliated,” says another, referring to the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The Syrian army, says Hizballah field commander Abu Jihad, will assist with shelling and air strikes where appropriate, but there is no doubt who is in the lead. “Everything will be under our commandment. The Syrian army will operate according to our plans,” he says, going by his nom de guerre. If true, it represents a striking evolution that reveals the true disarray of Assad’s forces. A Syrian officer in the presidential guard, reached by phone and speaking on condition of anonymity, concurs. “Whenever we are fighting with Hizballah, they take the command and we provide logistics.”

Even with Syrian military support, Abu Jihad anticipates a tough battle. He says there are some 30,000 rebels and rebel supporters in Qalamoun that will have to be defeated, a number backed up by other analysts and Western diplomats in Beirut. But Abu Jihad holds that Hizballah’s forces will be up to the task. The battle has been divided into four fronts, he explains, and Hizballah will take the northern, western and southern fronts along the border with Lebanon while the Syrian forces shore up the highway on the east. Once the rebels are encircled, Hizballah will begin to squeeze. “We will cut everything from them. All sources of life will be cut: water, gas, electricity, heating. Then we will launch our attack.” “We took the decision that none of them is allowed to go out alive,” adds Sheik Ahmad, a high-ranking Hizballah commander in charge of intelligence for Qusayr and Qalamoun.

Residents of Yabroud, a mixed Christian-Muslim town that has long sought to avoid violence, are already bracing for the onslaught. But there is little people can do, says Michael, a Christian resident and spokesman for the antiregime Free Christian movement of Yabroud. He goes by one name and spoke by phone. “We heard that the regime circulated flyers asking people to leave Qalamoun in 24 hours,” he says. But for where? Yabroud is already a refuge for thousands of displaced people fleeing the violence in nearby Homs. “I have no place to go,” laments Michael. “Thousands of people will be killed if the regime attacks.”

Mohammad al-Farouq, a spokesman from Yabroud’s media center, fears that the town will be the next victim of the starvation tactics practiced by the regime in other contested cities. Already, he says, Yabroud’s residents don’t have enough food, fuel and medicine to last the winter. “If this battle starts, it will be a disaster for the civilians.” Given the strategic value of Qalamoun for both sides, and Hizballah’s eagerness to take the lead for Assad, it doesn’t look like there will be much hope for staving off a brutal fight.

23 comments
NasirUddin
NasirUddin

and western lies continue .....  how much you will continue to lie ????

RhodaKasi
RhodaKasi

Shame on the USA .. Shame on Obama .. Shame on the world for sitting back and watching as over 125,000.00 thousand innocent people have died, and the list goes on and on.. and by the way the peace talks that are going back and forth between the USA and Russia and Iran are only a waist of time and money so it'll buy Bashar Assad ( the watch dog of Isreal ) ha ha ha extra time on his ( Throne ) if takes ten years we will get our democracy sooner or later and only time would prevail ???

carlloeber
carlloeber

President Obama has displayed monumental cowardice by his lack of support for the Syrian people ..  he opposed the efforts of all his top staff .. Clinton, Patraes, and Panetta to help the Syrians defend themselves from mass murder and he steadfastly refused .. I am ashamed ..  if the French and Russian rulers had not helped the American revolution in 1775 to 1780 it is  doubtful that our own struggle for freedom could have succeeded ..

vannjones
vannjones

Man, get your popcorn and tuck in for a no-holds-barred, steel cage death match! Ahh, wouldn't be great to sit back and watch the terrorists wrapped in a political party, Hizballah, vs the salafi-takfiri savages wrapped in black banners go toe to toe, if not for the terrible tragedy of the innocent of Syria. 

Mr Yehuda is spot on, and Mr Vetramon did not answer a single point, by any reasonable, objective standard. 

So sadly--but we hope for better in the future--the countries of the Arabic speaking Middle East have a long tradition of horrible leadership which causes their people to suffer. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can be blamed on Israel, including the tragedy of the Palestinian people (look at their leaders). Syria was backwards and the Ba'ath regime a dictatorial mafia long before the civil war started and, again, awful, violent leaders made the miserable become the horrible. And now, largely private Sunni funded uber extremists of ISIS et al will foist their bizarre world notions of religion--yes, religion--on the poor people of Syria in Azaz, Raqqa, and as this article notes in Qalamun. Israel, the US, and the West had nothing to do with this tragic situation created by, for, and among religious extremists of the most violent and inhumane kind, and mostly--not all--but mostly Arab. God help the children and other innocents of Syria. The Arabs of KSA, Kuwait, other GCC, certainly are not.

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

How unsurprising! The Hezbollah, paid by the Iranian holy Shiite regime, and the Al-Qaeda financed Sunni rebels, will fight to the last Syrian child under the pretense of doing God's war, the Jihad. They will stop at nothing, not even condemning a large innocent civilian population to die of starvation, a tactics exercised by the Nazis at S. Petersburg/Leningrad to the effect of killing 2 Million Russians. Who said "Never Again"?

TonyRossini
TonyRossini

@RhodaKasi - You support the Al Qaeda barbarians?

There's a good case that the Syrian Army should think of creating a Syrian United Front with the FSA & Kurds....and to drive out all these foreign Islamic terrorist groups run by warlords.

rickcain2320
rickcain2320

@YehudaElyada  

I noticed you tried to lump hezbollah and the obama financed islamists together but you gloss over the fact that hezbollah is fighting against the islamic terrorists, not with them.   Never trust what a jew says.

vetramon
vetramon

@YehudaElyada Horrible, eh?  Poor eating human terrorists, eh? Nice analysis, mr Zionist, and tell me mr Yehuda, what is the pretense of the Zionist criminal arm forces in Palestine? Tell me, mr Yehuda, Why your arm forces have bombed twice the Syrians? Who started this so called civil war? Tell me, mr Yehuda, the Golan Heights are yours, or you just grabbed against the international laws? There are so many, so many things that I could tell you and send you and your miserable opinion down to earth.



HussamSibai
HussamSibai

@rickcain2320 @YehudaElyada hizbullah is a terrorist organization ..and they are NOT fighting alqaeda... they are fighting the Syrian people to impose the rule of the dictator on them. and the whole world just sits back and enjoys the scene ..this is where humanity has come to in the 21 century


YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

@vetramon @YehudaElyada The difference between us is that you don't really care about the poor children starving, while I do. They deserve compassion, not propaganda.

You don't get it, so I'll give my answers in a questions form, too:

Why every day dozens of Syrian refugees cross the border to get medical help in Israel?

Why thousands of Palestinians cross every day the security fence to find a job in Israel?

Why no Israeli Arab will agree to have his village transferred to the Palestinian Authority?

Why the Golan border is the quietest in the ME for the last 40 years?

Why every year thousands of Israeli Arabs feel free to go on Haj to mecca, learn in Arab universities in Jordan and Syria, do business in Cairo and Dubai - and always come back to live in the so called Apartheid State?  

Why 10% of the Israeli parliament (The Knesset) seats are held by rather militant Arabs who have more freedom of expression than a Syrian minister?

Why, while the Syrian Army occupied the Golan, we, in the valley below in proper Israel, were shelled regularly and had to build the kindergartens inside bomb shelters?

Syria and Israel could live in peace long ago if we could just feel secure with the long term intentions of the Syrian government. Don't blame us for the fact that even most Syrian population feel the same. But we won't become passive victims as the poor souls finding themselves trapped between Hezbollah and Al Qaeda. You should be ashamed of yourself to justify this beastly situation.   

TonyRossini
TonyRossini

@HussamSibai _You  mean like US daily drone attacks killing mostly innocent civilians?

If you watch the Hezbollah videos...they look the closest thing to a western trained army. Highly organized and highly trained....the complete opposite to bands of Terrorists.

MuhammedHalabi
MuhammedHalabi

@rickcain2320  @YehudaElyada  Iran is fighting against Islam and Syrian people for its own objectives. The only terrorist in Syria is Hezbullah and Bashar Al-assad. The whole world is fighting with Assad regime ,why?  Because he is fighting to save Israel and to prevent Sunnies (the majority) from ruling Syria.

jr2013
jr2013

@vetramon @YehudaElyada Vetramon.......looks like you cannot answer Yehuda  questions...and you are saying that is a fanatic!!!!!...and what are you??? 

18PigsDontFly
18PigsDontFly

@YehudaElyada Characters like this vetramon roam the Internet looking for opportunities to spew their venom. They are automated robots repeating the same diatribe as all others with the same agenda: same words, same slander, same perversions, same lies. Simpletons that blame all and everything their peace-loving Islamist comrades allegedly suffer from on the Jooz, usually camouflaged under the sobriquet of Zionists or Israelis. Responding to them is like talking to the wall or communicating with a slaughtered pig. They have no brains, no opinions of their own: they blabber and blabber on and on, never even trying the slightest to fathom what it really is all about. They hear, see or read the word Israel, and off they go with their orgasmic streams of abuse.


vetramon
vetramon

@YehudaElyada @vetramon Sorry to insult you, sir, but you deserve it for being more than a hypocrite. So you feel bad for the children of Syria, what about the children with no future of the Palestinian? What about the war that your fanatic country wants to start with Iran? Your country is a rogue and pariah one, therefore, you, and all of your Zionist compatriots share the same epithet. Bye, bye.



YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

@vetramon @YehudaElyada You don't have to answer me, nor respect my convictions. But you have to answer the 120,000 dead and the 6 million refugees all of them the victims of your compatriots. And respect the sanctity of life, truth and humanity - even if that forces you to view the world in a more nuanced way. 

vetramon
vetramon

@YehudaElyada @vetramon Look sir, I don't dignify you with an answer, but there is this hidden idea that you just, all of you repeat like idiots. With your answer you simply give this Arabs that live so happily with your orts the merit of slaves. Wow, they live and work in Israel, so they should feel thankful for this. They have no choice, sir, because you are not going to allow them to have their own statehood. Do you know why, sir? Your Zionist agenda.

  You see, sir, just reading your answer makes my stomach revolts. You wrote,  '' Why, while the Syrian army occupied The Golan...etc'', Are you not ashamed to distort reality in this way? The Golan Heights belong to Syria, then How can occupy their own land? You are ILLEGALY occupying Syrian territory, SIR.

  There is no point to discuss with a fanatic. The last thing I want to tell you, sir, is that Israel since it received part of the Palestinian land as a gift from the masters of the war, have not respected the lives even of the people that gave you that land. Remember the USS LIBERTY? What about spying on this same people?