As they surround the town, they are joined by fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah, an Assad ally that has been helping government troops in the area.
We asked Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council who studies Hezbollah and the battle for southern Syria, to explain Yabroud’s significance and why the government has chosen this week to attack.
Syria Deeply: What makes Yabroud important?
Faysal Itani: Yabroud is the town sitting on the Qalamoun access route that runs along the mountain range north of Damascus. Its importance is its geographical location and the fact that it sits astride the M5 highway that connects Damascus to the center of the country and the West coast. Over the last year you’ve seen the regime develop a strategy to secure this area and protect it. The access from Damascus to Homs and then west is particularly critical, because it’s the regime’s major supply line.
The other reason it’s important is because it sits astride a rebel supply line from Lebanon. So it’s important but it’s difficult to discern exactly what’s been going on in Qalamoun in general.
SD: How involved in fighting is Hezbollah?
FI: It’s heavily involved, which is an interesting element. Hezbollah, like in Qusayr, has prioritized areas that run across the Lebanese border, and this is part of that campaign. For Hezbollah, Qalamoun is also an area where rebels operate into Lebanon. Hezbollah now has its own security issues in Lebanon, and that includes securing its border areas, which includes Qalamoun.
SD: What does fighting typically look like here?
FI: What happens here quite regularly is that the regime and Hezbollah will displace or defeat rebels in a particular area and then see them pop up in another area because the regime doesn’t have the manpower to keep them down once it clears them.
The latest update from the front says a large-scale offense began this morning against Yabroud. The indications are that it’s being subjected to heavy shelling in advance of an attack, which would aim not so much to displace the rebel forces there, but to surround and destroy them. I assume Hezbollah would be on the front line of combat in a situation like this.
They seem to have learned their lesson from Qusayr, where they left the rebels an escape route, to encircle them this time. If you’ve seen the [number of fighters the regime is bringing to Yabroud], it seems Hezbollah is more concerned with its own casualties this time.
SD: Who’s representing the opposition on the ground?
FI: Everybody’s on the ground. Jabhat al-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army and a bunch of other brigades. I’m not sure that they’ll be outnumbered, but they’ll be outgunned. I wonder whether the rebels are going to try to escape anyway; the terrain favors the defenders, not the attackers. But they had some advance warning that this was going to happen; there was visible preparation being made for an attack. When the regime amasses firepower on a place and has Hezbollah to lead the infantry assault, it usually wins.
SD: What’s the outlook?
FI: I assume the regime will be able to take it. It shows what the regime and Hezbollah’s priorities are, to defend this area. This has become a war of supply lines to some extent. This is an area where they can concentrate force, and in doing so, effectively isolate the insurgency around Damascus and the south from the rest of the country. The regime has limited resources, so they have to set limited objectives because they can’t attack all at once, everywhere, across the country. The psychology of it is important. I don’t think the Syrian government thinks it’s going to win the war in the immediate future, but for now, this is where they’re concentrating.