The fighting has also forced an exodus of thousands of refugees across the Lebanese border into the Bekaa Valley.
We asked Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council and an expert on Syria-Lebanon relations, about the state of the battle for Qalamoun and why it’s so important to each side.
Syria Deeply: Why is Qalamoun so important?
Faysal Itani: Qalamoun is important to Hezbollah and the regime for separate reasons, and it’s where we’re seeing a potential divergence of interests.
It’s a strategic link between Homs and the Hama area and Damascus, which is why the regime needs it badly. For Hezbollah it’s an area close to the Bekaa Valley that is heavily Sunni and quite hostile; that’s their priority, and why they seem to be committed to the area.
I’m not sure if the fighting is on the same level as it was over the summer in Qusayr, but that could be because it’s not being reported as heavily.
SD: What’s the situation on the ground right now?
FI: The Qalamoun fighting is concentrated in the eastern part of the area, along the M5 highway. The towns to watch are Maaloula, Yabroud, Deir Attiyah, Nabek and Qara.
In terms of the tactical situation, it’s not going as well as the regime had hoped it would. From the regime’s perspective, they’ve done quite well in parts of the north and northeast, but there have also been territories south of that that have been trading hands. The regime has taken some places and withdrawn, only to see them retaken by the opposition. It’s symptomatic of the regime being overstretched.
There’s the hinterland inside, where you have the rebels slightly better set and less vulnerable. The areas both sides are concentrating on winning are the areas adjacent to highway that runs between Damascus and Homs. That’s where they’re going from village to village, because from there the rebels are able to intercept supply lines. It’s become a war of supply lines.
And then of course, there’s the idea of holding a region close to Damascus. I’d think this is where they’d concentrate most of their efforts, and that’s what we’re seeing. It’s hard to gauge who’s doing better in which part of Qalamoun. I know the regime was able to capture the Qala area, in the north, but after that, momentum slowed down and it’s become a fluid situation. But it’s not a stalemate.
SD: Hezbollah has been fighting alongside the government in Qalamoun. Why is the area so important for them?
FI: For Hezbollah, the situation is even more dangerous than it is for the regime, because there seems to have been an uptick in attacks on Hezbollah interests in Lebanon since this Qalamoun drive started. You had the attack on the Iranian embassy in south Beirut earlier this month, and now this week the assassination of Hassan Laqees, a top official.
I know they blamed the Israelis for the embassy bombing, but I don’t think that’s credible. It’s convenient to blame them because then Hezbollah doesn’t have to confront the Sunnis. Hezbollah has tried to make sure the narrative doesn’t go in that direction. To cast it as a Sunni attack is not a good idea.
The thing to watch in Lebanon is: what is the relationship between Hezbollah and its Shia constituency? Because Hezbollah’s primary anxiety and first priority is its relationship with the Shia. Any serious dissent of their Syria policy would be pretty significant. They must be feeling more vigilant right now given the proven capability of Sunni fighters in their territory.
The perception among Sunnis is that Hezbollah and the Lebanese army are on the same side. But if either gives way, Lebanon could move into the next phase of civil violence. If this continues in Qalamoun and Hezbollah takes further fighting casualties, it would happen.
SD: Power keeps switching hands there. Do you think the government will lose?
FI: I don’t think they will lose it as such. I think they’ll become bogged down it in. It’s so important to them. It’s far more important than taking Aleppo or proceeding in the south, where they’ve been doing quite poorly. If they lose it, it affects their posture in the north and center of Syria.
And it would also be a problem for Hezbollah because they’d have to contend with a Sunni insurgence that would, with a win, have quite a bit more strategic depth than beyond the Bekaa. Hezbollah would be facing a more capable Sunni militant movement, so they can’t afford to lose Qalamoun, and even if there’s a temporary loss of control, I don’t see them backing off and taking the fight elsewhere.
SD: What’s the makeup of the opposition in Qalamoun?
FI: Extremist groups are quite active in Qalamoun: the extremists are active everywhere and engaged in most of the fronts. Moderate Islamists are also definitely present. I’m not sure the nature of the FSA’s involvement in that area. They’re more active to the north of Qalamoun, in Homs and Hama. That’s where they’ve got the most active presence.
I should also add that, in addition to what I mentioned about its logistical importance to the regime and role as a base of rebel ops against Damascus, rebel supply lines from the Bekaa Valley also pass through Qalamoun.