TELYA, Lebanon: Hezbollah reinforcements and large quantities of weapons and ammunition are being transferred into Lebanon’s eastern mountain range ahead of a much-anticipated offensive in Qalamoun to uproot militant groups, according to resistance party fighters and Shiite paramilitary forces in the Bekaa Valley. The sound of outgoing rocket fire has been heard the past three days southeast of Baalbek, as Hezbollah launches strikes against positions manned by the militants, the sources say. Fighting has also flared lately on the Syrian side of the border between Flita and Asal al-Ward, leaving casualties on both sides.
“No one is leaving alive. There will be no deals. Our people have made the decision to wipe them out completely,” says a veteran Hezbollah fighter who has served multiple tours in Syria.
The Nusra Front is believed to be deployed in the rugged mountainous terrain straddling the border between the Tufail promontory and Arsal, 30 kilometers to the north. ISIS’ stronghold runs northeast from Arsal to the area west of Burayj on the Damascus-Homs highway. Syrian rebel factions control Zabadani, at the southern end of Qalamoun, and they also have access to Serghaya and Maaraboun, the latter a Sunni border village inside Lebanon, 15 kilometers north of Zabadani.
Hezbollah’s front line here is located at Ham, 2.5 kilometers north of Maaraboun. Although the militants in the Zabadani axis are surrounded by Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters, they are able to infiltrate other parts of Qalamoun partly due to the rugged terrain being difficult to fully control and also thanks to some Syrian troops accepting bribes to look the other way.
Hezbollah is deployed on both sides of the border, effectively surrounding its enemies. In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s military deployment extends north from the hills west of Zabadani to the edge of the Lebanese Army’s lines near Arsal.
Hezbollah has constructed a chain of mountaintop outposts and dominates most of the ground in Lebanese territory, including the Tufail promontory. On the Syrian side of the border, Hezbollah, along with the Syrian army, the National Defense Force militia and other loyalist paramilitaries controls the western-most populated areas of Qalamoun.
Various media reports this week have offered conflicting claims about the strength of ISIS in Qalamoun, with one claiming it may have withdrawn from some of its positions to reinforce the group’s presence elsewhere in Syria and Iraq.
Other reports have claimed that ISIS has ramped up its presence in the eastern mountains in preparation for attacks into Lebanon. Either way, the outbreak of major fighting in the eastern mountains and Qalamoun is expected soon. Abu Malik al-Shami, the emir of the Nusra Front in Qalamoun, warned Monday that his group would soon attack “the Iranian party’s [Hezbollah] strongholds” in Lebanon.
For Hezbollah, this will be the second Qalamoun offensive it has waged in the past year and a half. The first was launched in November 2013 when Hezbollah spearheaded a five-month campaign that swept from Qarah at the northern end of Qalamoun southward to regain a succession of rebel-held towns and villages. Hezbollah’s strategy was to surround, besiege and then capture the rebel-held urban areas one-by-one. In almost every case, an escape route was left open, allowing the rebels to flee. The purpose was to avoid sending ground forces into urban areas which risked high casualties, a lesson learned from the battle for Qusair in May-June 2013 in which Hezbollah lost dozens of combatants in 17 days of fighting.
The strategy was largely successful and by mid-April last year, Qalamoun was back in the hands of the Syrian Government. Many of the rebels escaped to the mountainous areas along the Lebanon-Syria border.
Fresh fighting broke out in the summer when the Iraqi Shiite paramilitaries helping garrison Qalamoun were recalled home to confront ISIS following its seizure of Mosul and advance on Baghdad. The rebels based in the Qalamoun mountains launched hit-and-run raids which led to a series of regular clashes that have continued ever since.
Unlike the original Qalamoun offensive which was fought mainly in urban areas, Qalamoun II will take place in the barren mountains as the Syrian Government still controls the populated areas.
Hezbollah has marked off the area into numbered operational sectors in accordance with its normal procedure and is deploying its pilotless reconnaissance drones to monitor its enemy’s positions and movements. One of the top objectives for Hezbollah is to seize full control of the strategic Tallet Mousa on the border southeast of Arsal. At 2,600 meters, Tallet Mousa is the highest point in Qalamoun.
“Whoever holds Tallet Mousa holds all the wilderness of Arsal,” the Hezbollah veteran said.
Another objective is a large training camp located in a valley some 5 kilometers from Tallet Mousa which is under close watch by Hezbollah’s drones. The summit of Tallet Mousa is presently covered with snow and uninhabited, although it lies on the front line between Hezbollah and the Nusra Front. Both sides regularly shell each other with mortars and stage ambushes.
What remains unclear at this stage is whether the Lebanese Army will also launch its own offensive, either unilaterally or in tacit coordination with Hezbollah.
There is a mood within Army circles to advance closer to the border and drive the militants out of their bases on Lebanese soil. But delaying factors may include a lack of sufficient air power considered necessary for such an operation as well as the wait for new armaments and equipment from France.
“We will help the Army if they need it but where we will be going, we go alone,” the Hezbollah fighter said.
While confident of a Hezbollah victory, he acknowledged that the militants are “tough fighters.”
“They are very well trained,” the fighter said. “Most of them are foreigners and they have fought in places like Somalia and Iraq where they gained experience.”
The offensive appears all but imminent, which could be bad news for the 25 Army and Internal Security Forces hostages who have been held captive by the Nusra Front and ISIS since the battle of Arsal last August. Despite the protracted negotiations to secure their release, the offensive is taking priority even at the expense of the lives of the hostages.
“We are tired of this game [of negotiations],” says Abu Meiss, the leader of a group of Bekaa Valley-based Shiite paramilitary fighters affiliated to Hezbollah who expect to participate in the offensive. “We view the hostages as martyrs. The offensive is coming.”