Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1246, (14 - 20 May 2015)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1246, (14 - 20 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The fate of Hizbullah

Lebanon’s Hizbullah is mobilising to take control of a border area inside Syria, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Lebanon’s Hizbullah has started to mobilise its troops to take control of the Qalamoun region in Syria, close to the border with Lebanon, in order to weaken the Syrian opposition forces and armed revolutionary groups that control the area.

Opposition control there is a concern for the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad as well as for Iran, and Hizbullah believes the area is a direct threat because it is close to the group’s camps inside Lebanon.

Hizbullah militias are becoming more embroiled in the ongoing war in Syria, despite the fact that Beirut’s southern district has been mourning the deaths of men who have died in Syria fighting against the group on a weekly basis.

It seems the Shiite group has not learned its lesson. It is certain to lose in Syria as long as its agenda remains dictated by Iran and ignores Arab priorities.

Hizbullah, along with Syrian regime troops, has failed several times to gain control of the Qalamoun region, which is tightly controlled by Syrian opposition forces. It was hoped that harsh winter conditions in the region would weaken the armed Syrian opposition, blocking supplies into the area and forcing the starving residents to surrender.

However, this plan did not work, and the opposition forces were able to open several supply routes because they were operating in a sympathetic environment and were even able to increase their weapons and stocks of ammunition.

An unknown number of combatants are positioned in the Qalamoun region. Some are associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and various armed Islamist brigades (80 per cent), as well as Al-Qaeda’s affiliate Al-Nusra Front (20 per cent).

The region is difficult of access for the Hizbullah militias and Syrian regime forces because of its precarious mountainous terrain.

Hizbullah, the Syrian regime and Iran have vowed that the fighting in Qalamoun will be brutal and decisive for the future of central Syria, saying that it will mark the end of the Syrian opposition.

But what is taking place on the ground is the opposite of this prediction. After a surprise pre-emptive attack against Hizbullah fighters by opposition forces, killing dozens including key figures and seizing weapons, the group was forced to retreat instead of forging ahead as it had hoped.

The battle of Qalamoun will not be as simple as Hizbullah and the regime might think. It is a large area with a complex terrain. The armed opposition factions are very knowledgeable about the area and are united in their desire to fight Hizbullah, indicating that future battles will be brutal and decisive.

“Hizbullah is mobilising large numbers of its combatants to take control of Qalamoun for two reasons,” Alaa Bahbouh, an opposition fighter, explained to the Weekly.

“First, it wants to secure the only route of retreat for regime troops from Damascus to their strongholds on the coast. Second, it wants to secure the only remaining route by which the regime is sending missiles to Hizbullah inside Lebanon. This explains the recent Israeli air strikes targeting the area,” he said.

 “But the opposition fighters are in a good position, and the battle with Hizbullah and the regime in Qalamoun will not be easy. The latter would need more than a year to take control of the area, and there is a real chance they will be defeated. Last week, some 40 Hizbullah militia fighters were killed, including five leaders. We hope this will cause Hizbullah supporters in Lebanon to stop the group interfering in Syrian affairs and cause it to withdraw its sectarian militias from Syria,” Bahbouh added.

As Hizbullah prepares for the battle of Qalamoun, Lebanese voices opposing the group’s interference are growing louder. Many Lebanese are now publicly saying that Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s secretary-general, is dragging the country into a swamp that is not of their making.

Some have also declared their objections to Hizbullah’s attempts to embroil the Lebanese army in the conflict in Syria.

Some members of Hizbullah who support the Syrian regime, and even some Syrians in the opposition, have described the battle of Qalamoun as the potential “mother of all battles” in the Syrian conflict, adding that it will decide the overall war in Syria.

But others, on both sides, believe this is an exaggeration, claiming the battle will only have a tactical impact, not a strategic one, and referring to the dilemma Hizbullah and the regime are facing in the region.

Waleed Al-Bonni, a member of the Syrian opposition, believes the battle of Qalamoun will be a milestone in the Syrian crisis because it will decide the path of the situation in Syria.

“It is Iran’s battle, and it will be decisive,” Al-Bonni said. “Iran will spare no efforts or funds or weapons to ensure Hizbullah wins the battle of Qalamoun, which would postpone the fall of the Al-Assad regime,” he said.

“Tehran will continue to use the Syrian card in its ongoing disputes with other regional powers, including the Arabs, for control of the fate of the region. Qalamoun will decide whether Iran will continue its hegemony in Syria, or whether Syria will return as a key component of Arab national security and regional stability.”

The battle of Qalamoun will result in serious shifts on the ground that will be detrimental to Hizbullah if the group loses. Its supporters in Lebanon will not want to endure more losses, as the corpses continue to return from Syria. And Hizbullah’s defeat would mean regime combatants would not be able to return to their villages on the coast, which could mean an imminent end to the military aspect of the Syrian crisis.

This could also result in a confrontation between Russia and the US in the country. Currently, both sides in Syria are blocking supply routes and making movement more and more difficult. All border crossings with Syria’s neighbours are under the control of the armed opposition, except one on the border with Lebanon.

Expelling Hizbullah and regime troops from Qalamoun would take control of the remaining border crossing. This would further isolate the regime and close off routes for Iranian weapons to reach Syria, adding to Tehran’s determination to prevent the opposition from taking control of this region.

It is likely that Hizbullah will abandon its strategy of attacks on Qalamoun and will allow the status quo to continue. This may also be acceptable to the Syrian opposition, as it does not have the resources to open an attack.

It may be too early to talk about the final defeat of Hizbullah in Syria because this is not linked to domestic Lebanese developments, but rather to the defeat of the Syrian regime and Iran’s plans for the region.

Hizbullah is the twin of the Syrian regime in the war and a key tool for Iran in the Middle East. Iran still assists both with funds, weapons and militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries.

The defeat of Hizbullah, whose leader has openly said his primary allegiance is to Iran and not the state of Lebanon, is also linked to the actions of the Syrian opposition, which has been unable to convince pro-regime and pro-Hizbullah supporters in Syria and Lebanon to abandon the group’s actions in Lebanon.

The recent victories of the armed Syrian opposition have been the result of the support of neighbouring countries, providing another angle on the battle of Qalamoun.

If the battle begins, it will be a test of the desire of regional powers in their support for the revolutionaries. A victory for the revolutionaries in Qalamoun would mean that the next battle in the Syrian conflict will be over who will take control of Damascus.

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