But what was once seen as a relatively minor engagement in the broader Syrian conflict has taken on new significance. Following a spate of military setbacks in the north and south of the country in the past six weeks, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is desperate for a victory and is depending on his Shia Hezbollah allies to deliver it.
Assad, and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies, badly need to defeat — and to be seen defeating — the various rebel factions dug into the rugged Qalamoun mountains to stave off the perception that the tide may have finally turned against them.
“Today we are fighting a war, not a battle,” Assad said Wednesday in a rare public appearance. “War is not one battle but a series of many battles. … We are not talking about tens or hundreds but thousands of battles and … it is the nature of battles for there to be advances and retreats, victories and losses.”
Assad’s frank comments, a departure from his usual tone of confidence, were the first acknowledgment from his regime of the recent defeats.
This is why Assad needs a win to show his supporters that he still has the upper hand. And the pressure is on Hezbollah to secure that victory by crushing rebel groups, mainly Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, in Qalamoun.
“When the operation begins, it will speak for itself and impose itself on the media,” Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, said in a televised speech Tuesday. “We will not announce its location or timing.”
The long-awaited offensive was set to begin on April 28 but was called off at the last minute, according to Rifaat Nasrallah, the head of a Hezbollah-allied defense force for the Christian village of Ras Baalbek in Lebanon’s northern Bekaa Valley.
“We were handing out [flack] jackets and helmets and readying for battle,” he says. “I don’t know why it was postponed, but it will begin soon and it will be fast and powerful.”
Nasrallah and his volunteer Christian fighters expect to play a backup role to Hezbollah, advancing into the barren mountains to the east where the rebel fighters are holed up.
Several observation posts have been established around Ras Baalbek to watch out for potential attack by the Syrian insurgents. At one lookout post, two armed men, wearing full Hezbollah camouflaged uniforms with yellow party badges on their shoulders, sipped tea beneath the shade of a tree. Behind them was a pickup truck with a Russian 12.7mm heavy machine gun mounted on the back.
At another observation post overlooking the village, Nasrallah points to a small ancient church and an adjacent cemetery.
“First, we defend our church, then we defend the resting place of our ancestors, and third we defend our homes. We will never leave,” he said.
Although the offensive has yet to formally begin, fighting in Qalamoun flared this week. On Monday and Tuesday, Jabhat al-Nusra attacked a string of Hezbollah hilltop positions. On Thursday, Hezbollah announced it had seized strategic high ground near the village of Asal al-Warde just inside Syria with “dozens” of rebel fighters reportedly killed and wounded.
Still, the pace of rebel gains in Syria in the past six weeks has broken a battlefield stalemate that had lasted for more than a year. In late March, rebels seized the ancient town of Bosra ash-Sham in the south as well as the Nasib border crossing with Jordan and blocked a much-touted Iranian-led offensive in the southern Deraa and Quneitra provinces.
In the north, a new coalition of headed by Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate, captured Idlib city followed by the strategic town of Jisr al-Shoghour, which is the gateway to the Assad regime stronghold of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, 35 miles to the southwest. Rebels also gained territory in the Al-Ghab plain south of Jisr al-Shoghour and Tuesday launched a new offensive in the Homs province.
Key to the recent rebel advances is the newfound cooperation among leading Arab states and Turkey, which have set aside differences over backing rival rebel factions to concentrate on ousting Assad.
Various rebel factions who spent almost as much time feuding with each other as battling the Syrian army are now coordinating their efforts under the guidance of their regional sponsors, which has led to a string of territorial gains.
“They have really learned to fight together,” a Turkish official told the Associated Press on Thursday, confirming for the first time the existence of an anti-Assad alliance with Saudi Arabia.
Also working in the favor of the armed opposition is the manpower shortage affecting the Syrian army and allied militias. The Syrian army’s pre-conflict strength of around 300,000 troops is believed to have been halved after four years of fighting through casualties (80,000 to 100,000 according to a Beirut-based diplomat), defections and desertions. The minority Alawite community, the Shia splinter sect to which Assad belongs, has been decimated by the war, and the regime is struggling to attract new recruits for a conflict that is increasingly looking unwinnable.
Iran has helped beef up numbers by deploying thousands of Shia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as troops from its own Revolutionary Guards Corps. But it is unclear whether Iran has the ability to send the necessary additional fighters to Syria’s battlefields to reverse the recent territorial losses.
“This is what you would expect to see in a war of attrition where a government depends on a minority base within the country,” says Robert Ford, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Middle East Institute and ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014.
Assad has sought to deploy his army across much of Syria to promote the impression he remains leader of a unitary state.
But the exhausted and disintegrating Syrian army can no longer realistically defend the further flung reaches of the country with supply lines becoming perilously vulnerable to being cut by rebel forces. If the rebels continue their advances, Assad and Iran may have little choice but to pull back to the core regime areas linking Damascus to Latakia on the coast.
While such a move would shorten the lines of defense and ease the burden on the overstretched loyalist forces, it would deliver a psychological blow to Assad’s supporters, further strengthening the impression that the regime is losing the war.
Two recently released videos illustrate how much the situation on the ground has shifted. The first video is a slickly produced 20-minute film of a military parade organized by the Jaysh al-Islam rebel faction outside Damascus in which some 1,700 uniformed recruits march alongside captured T-72 tanks.
“As long as we have eyes that twinkle and hearts that beat, we will keep on fighting them [Assad and his allies] and shaking their fortifications, destroying them, taking help from Allah,” says Zahran Alloush, the group’s commander, addressing the assembled fighters.
The video contains a clear message: Jaysh al-Islam is organized, well-armed, plentiful, confident and determined.
The second video paints an altogether different picture of their enemies. Shaky footage shows Colonel Suhail Hassan, commander of the Syria’s army’s elite Tiger Force unit, urgently requesting ammunition in a phone call allegedly to Fahad Jassim al-Freij, the Syrian defense minister, shortly after rebels seized Jisr al-Shoghour.
“They only want ammunition,” Hassan says, referring to his men. “They don’t have ammunition, the heroes here.”
The message in this instance, albeit unintentional, is also transparent. The Syrian army is exhausted, losing ground and lacking the necessary support to continue fighting.