On Sunday, government troops declared victory in Yabroud, the last rebel-controlled stronghold on the border with Lebanon, cutting off a main supply line for opposition fighters in the mountainous, hotly contested Qalamoun region.
Qalamoun’s strategic importance is in its location; it straddles the M5 highway, a main artery from Damascus to Latakia.
Yabroud is the latest key victory for Bashar al-Assad’s forces and allied fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, as a divided opposition struggles against a Syrian army that has seen momentum on the ground tip in its favor. Extremists from Jabhat al-Nusra took a lead role in organizing rebels in the town, working with fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the Free Syrian Army.
“This new success … is an important step towards securing the border area with Lebanon, and cutting off the roads and tightening the noose around the remaining terrorist cells in Damascus province,” the Syrian military said in a statement Sunday.
We asked Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council focusing on southern Syria and Hezbollah, and Aymenn al-Tamimi, a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum, to weigh in on what the loss means for the opposition.
Syria Deeply: What turned the tide this weekend?
Faysal Itani: When the regime and Hezbollah choose to consolidate their resources and manpower, they usually end up winning. It was a matter of time before Yabroud fell.
What appears to have happened this weekend is that the rebels launched a tactical retreat of some sort. Jabhat al-Nusra is accusing some groups of leaving them to fight by themselves. But the strategy of regime bombardment was making progress everywhere else in Qalamoun, and Yabroud was the most symbolic linchpin of that campaign. It goes to show how much progress the regime has made in putting together effective tactics to take areas of strategic importance.
SD: How are rebel forces in Yabroud reacting to this loss?
Aymenn al-Tamimi: Jabhat al-Nusra is particularly keen to downplay the idea that they’ve lost Yabroud. They denounced Al Arabiya for reporting it: they called them “the Hebrew channel.” It’s pretty certain now that Yabroud is in regime hands. Nusra was the last rebel group to keep fighting, and they played the leading role with the rebels there. ISIS was there as well, and they were collaborating with al-Nusra. This was one of the few areas in Syria where there was no infighting between ISIS and other opposition groups.
SD: Could the opposition have dedicated more resources to Yabroud?
FI: Not really. Perhaps they had reconciled themselves to the fact that they don’t have an interest in concentrating resources in an area of regime strength. That’s the logic of insurgency – you don’t confront the regime where it’s the strongest and employs its best tools; you confront it where it has diverted resources away. The rebels didn’t have much choice.
But they have inflicted some casualties in Yabroud – they didn’t retreat. To take an all-or-nothing stand there and sustain large losses wouldn’t have made sense. But they did dedicate quite a few resources to this.
SD: What does the loss of one of its flagship strongholds mean for al-Nusra?
AT: It’s a significant loss because in November , they were put in charge of the wider rebel operations against the regime in the wider Qalamoun area, and now that’s all lost. It doesn’t mean the end of the wider insurgency in [the rest of] Damascus province; you still have eastern Ghouta, and generally the regime, even with Hezbollah’s support, doesn’t have the manpower to support the entire area. The countryside is too porous, and the regime lacks the manpower to fully secure it.
It’s a big loss symbolically, because there was a song put out by Hezbollah a while back about “victory in Yabroud,” and then rebels responded with one that said, “we’ll dig your grave in Yabroud,” so now that doesn’t look good.
FI: Qalamoun’s been lost. I seriously doubt that al-Nusra can maintain a [rebel] presence there all by itself.
SD: Strategically, how important was this victory for Assad?
AT: The whole pretext of pushing through Qalamoun was the idea of moving chemical weapons [on the M5 highway from Damascus to Latakia, through a dangerous, contested stretch of terrain]. I think this is really analogous to the fall of Qusayr, which also spread out over weeks. Yabroud wasn’t a quick battle, but people were saying it was Hezbollah’s Vietnam, and I don’t think that’s correct. Even with this loss, the overall picture throughout the country is one of stalemate. This doesn’t change that.
FI: It’s significant. This was a rebel supply line, and the rebels used the battle here to divert regime resources from the Damascus suburbs. It was effectively a tool the rebels used in order to put some pressure on the capital. And that’s been lost. This frees up the regime to focus on the suburbs of Damascus.