In a new video posted online, Nusra Front militants announced the formation of a ‘Jaish al-Fateh’ branch in the Qalamoun region. Jaish al-Fateh (Army of Conquest) is the same rebel alliance which has scored numerous victories in recent weeks against the Assad regime in northern Syria’s Idlib Province.
The main components of the Qalamoun branch, according to the statement are the FSA’s Qalamoun arm, the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham, and the recently formed “Cling to the Rope of God” alliance. ISIS factions were not mentioned.
The video featured eight Lebanese security personnel who have been held by Nusra since the summer months of 2014, and warned Hezbollah and the Lebanese military of repercussions should they enter the Qalamoun battle.
The warning by the Nusra Front follows an escalation in rebel attacks against Hezbollah Qalamoun positions since May 4, including al-Jobeh and Flieta. While those attacks were repelled, they were believed to be part of a probing mission by rebels ahead of a possibly larger offensive.
The unification of rebel groups will pose a further challenge for Hezbollah, which has sent mixed messaging over its willingness to fully intervene in the Qalamoun region due to concerns of sectarian repercussions in Lebanon and casualties to its own fighters.
While the Assad regime requires Hezbollah assistance to secure key routes (which traverse Qalamoun) from Damascus to the coast, the Nusra Front video indicates that repercussions for Lebanon, particularly if the Lebanese hostages are executed, could be severe. Hezbollah’s operational dilemma over intervention in Syria was further emphasized on May 5, when the al-Akhbar outlet quoted Hassan Nasrallah as saying “if Assad falls, Hezbollah falls.”