Hezbollah’s Victory in Qalamoun: Winning the Battle, Losing the War

David Schenker and Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai

May 20, 2015. Also available in العربية

The group will no doubt continueimgres helping the Assad regime hang on, but the war’s heavy attrition, Syria’s demographic realities, and rebel gains elsewhere in the country all point to a seemingly inevitable fall.

This weekend, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech about the Lebanese Shiite militia’s impending victory in the Syrian border district of Qalamoun. The two-week campaign has seen Hezbollah forces aligned with Bashar al-Assad’s regime roll back a coalition of Sunni Islamists from key positions in the strategic region. Yet while Nasrallah waxed triumphant during his speech, the victory is pyrrhic and likely temporary — Hezbollah and Assad may have won the battle, but they are losing the war for Syria.

Qalamoun’s Importance

In recent years, rebel forces have been using Qalamoun as a base for operations around Damascus, and the region also serves as a critical line of communication with their Sunni backers in eastern Lebanon. At the same time, Assad regime forces backed by Hezbollah and Iranian militias depend on the north-south highway that runs through Qalamoun and connects Damascus with other provinces, including Homs. Equally important, the region links Damascus to the regime’s core supporters, the nominally Shiite Alawites who reside on the coast (for more on these Alawite enclaves, see Policy Focus 132, The Potential for an Assad Statelet in Syria).

Last summer, forces from the “Islamic State”/ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) occupied the Lebanese border town of Arsal, in the process snatching dozens of soldiers and security officers. Arsal is also home to an estimated 40,000 Syrian Sunni refugees. In late August, ISIS beheaded two of its captives, one Sunni and one Shiite, and has since killed two others while continuing to hold some twenty-five hostages. Two months later, JN forces overran a Hezbollah outpost in Brital — about thirty miles southwest of Arsal, in Lebanon’s Beqa Valley adjacent to Qalamoun — killing eight Shiite militiamen and wounding twenty others.

While Arsal remained on ongoing but perhaps tolerable irritant for Hezbollah, overall rebel activity in the area increased the urgency of an effective Shiite response along the border. Prior to the Hezbollah-led offensive in Qalamoun, an estimated 3,000-5,000 ISIS, JN, and affiliated fighters were deployed along the frontier. In March, rebel forces launched a series of attacks against Shiite militia positions in the area, later followed by significant advances further north in Idlib and Hama — gains made possible by a new degree of cooperation among Sunni militias under the banner of Jaish al-Fatah (the Army of Conquest). Rebel advances in the southern regions of Quneitra and Deraa only added to Hezbollah’s concerns.

The Battle for Qalamoun

Since November 2013, the Syrian army has been actively targeting major towns in Qalamoun with airstrikes while fighting rebels on the ground alongside Hezbollah forces. The current Hezbollah-led offensive — joined on May 5 in al-Nabak and Yabroud districts in the Qalamoun Mountains — is a more intensive effort to clear and hold territory. Reports in the Arab press have mentioned battles for strategic hilltops in the area, but there is little reliable coverage of individual clashes. Not surprisingly, Hezbollah’s al-Manar satellite television network has been consistently reporting high rebel casualties and tactical setbacks. At the same time, the group has provided press junkets in Qalamoun for Lebanon-based Western journalists. On May 16, the New York Times featured a story about one of these press tours, complete with a description of a staged Hezbollah patrol.

Propaganda aside, rebel forces in Qalamoun do appear to be losing ground. According to Nasrallah, Hezbollah and the Assad regime have regained control of 300 square kilometers in the region, and reports that the group is now closing on the Syrian town of Flita would seemingly confirm this claim.

Less clear, however, are the costs for Hezbollah. Nasrallah admitted that thirteen of his fighters had been killed in the previous two weeks, but this low figure strains credulity given the high number of purported fatalities on the rebel side. Indeed, earlier today, the Lebanese daily an-Nahar published a list of twenty-three Hezbollah militiamen known to have been killed in the battle. More broadly, Lebanese skeptics have begun to suspect that the group is keeping the bodies of some of its dead fighters on ice, rationing funerals as the war drags on in order to propitiate Shiite public opinion.

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Growing Rebel Capabilities Press the Syrian Regime

Jeffrey White and Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai

April 27, 2015. Also available in العربية 

imagesGiven the major setbacks the regime has suffered over the past week, now is a good time to apply maximum pressure on Assad, whether to force genuine diplomatic negotiations or accelerate a full military defeat.

On April 22, a coalition of Syrian rebel forces launched a major operation, “The Battle of Victory,” to drive Assad regime forces from the northern Idlib province. Conducted with jihadist elements in a leading but not exclusive role, the campaign follows the successful capture of the provincial capital at the end of March. The current operation is larger and broader in geographic scope; it has produced some of the most serious fighting of the war and could mark a turning point.

If the rebels can consolidate and exploit their latest gains, the regime will have suffered another major defeat in a string of setbacks since February — a sequence of events that suggests failing capacity among government and allied forces. The rebels would then be poised for further offensive operations in the north, and the boost in morale would likely energize them on other fronts. Moreover, much of the credit for their success would accrue to Islamist factions, including those linked to al-Qaeda, further strengthening their military and political position in the north and likely boosting it elsewhere in Syria as well.

The regime may yet be able to stabilize the situation, however. If so, it would signal that it is still in the fight and capable of vigorous military action.

The Idlib Campaign

The current offensive encompasses the area between Jisr al-Shughour and Ariha in southern Idlib province, and the northern al-Ghab plain of Hama province. These areas make up a dogleg salient of regime-held territory extending from Latakia province to just south of Idlib city. Rebel strategy appears to center on exploiting the regime’s highly vulnerable position there in order to break its hold on the province and create conditions for follow-on operations elsewhere in the north.

Planning for the campaign may have begun as early as December, and rebel forces initiated serious operations against the salient in late March with the storming of Idlib city (see PolicyWatch 2396, “The Battle for Idlib: Military Implications”). This set the conditions for broader, ongoing operations in the salient and northern Hama.

Round two of the campaign has been a more complex event — a major operation with multiple objectives requiring multiple coordinated actions. As in the battle for Idlib city, a number of different rebel groups are involved, including Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), the umbrella group that comprises al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa, Jaish al-Sunna, Sham Legion, Liwa al-Haqq, and Ajnad al-Sham. They are acting in cooperation with six other rebel groups: Jaish al-Islam, al-Sham Front, Suqur al-Sham, al-Ghab Plain Faction, Jabhat al-Sumood, and the First Coastal Unit, which launched operations on the al-Ghab plain. Three other al-Qaeda-affiliated foreign elements are fighting alongside them as well: Katibat Turkistani (a.k.a. the Turkistan Islamic Party or TIP), Jund al-Sham, and Jabhat Ansar al-Din (an umbrella group for smaller factions, including the Chechen-led Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar and the Moroccan-led Harakat Sham al-Islam).

The rebels have once again been able to achieve a significant concentration of forces and heavy weapons. Ten to thirteen thousand fighters have reportedly taken part — a plausible figure given that sixteen different groups are involved. They appear very well armed with plentiful ammunition. Heavy weapons employed include T-55, T-62, and T-72 tanks, BMP infantry fighting vehicles, rocket launchers, mortars, and vehicle-mounted heavy antiaircraft machine guns (12.7, 14.5, and 23 mm). Several types of antitank weapons have been heavily used, including RPG-7s, RPG-22s, M79s, and TOW missiles. Rebel videos show numerous accurate TOW attacks on regime armored vehicles and positions.

Rebel tactics in the current campaign are similar to those employed in the battle for Idlib city. Fighters have isolated and assaulted regime strongpoints in the countryside, cutting lines of communication within the salient. Urban areas have been bombarded, infiltrated, and taken in close combat; locations posing strong resistance have been attacked by suicide-vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs).

Government-aligned sources provide some picture of the regime’s order of battle. At the beginning of the offensive, its forces again comprised a mix of regulars from the 11th Division’s 87th Brigade (already battered in the Idlib city battle), personnel from the National Defense Force, elements of the “Tiger Force” (one of the regime’s most effective combat units), and possibly elements of the 54th Special Forces Regiment. . Reinforcements sent to the battle area reportedly include elements of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party militia and the 106th Republican Guard Brigade, the 40th Tank Brigade, and Hezbollah forces.

Initially, the regime tried to maintain its hold on urban areas and the strongpoints spread throughout the salient. Some local counterattacks were conducted, at times successfully, but units at many positions appear to have fought alone until overrun; in certain cases, regime forces abandoned their positions rather than face destruction. The regime again attempted to use its air force to disrupt rebel operations but largely failed; poor weather early on probably played a role in this failure. The regime is now using airpower to heavily strike military and civilian areas seized by the rebels.

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Assad Plays America the Fool… Again. Assad’s Regime is Just as Bad as ISIS.

 By Aaron Y. Zelin, Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai
Bashar_and_Asma_al-AssadLast decade, Assad’s regime fooled Washington into believing that he would bring about reform. He did not. The lack of institutional and economic reforms led to the uprising and civil war in Syria. It is a shame then that Assad is fooling Washington a second time, now arguing he is the lesser of two evils compared to ISIS, an argument that has influenced Secretary of State John Kerry, who is now calling for negotiations. Assad’s regime is just as bad as ISIS. If Washington falls for Assad’s manipulation and deceptions again, what will be the result? The stakes are greater now than in the last decade and the security situation more tenuous, so why would anyone put trust in a regime that has not only failed its own people, but also blatantly conned Western leaders not once, but twice?
Assad’s “reforms” were nothing more than a thin cover for further corruption. There was never a real intention to improve economic or living conditions. Not only was the international community fooled, but many Syrians bought into the lies. It did not take long for the “ophthalmologist” to be proven short-sighted as protesters took to the streets in Damascus in February 2011 chanting “Syrian people will not be humiliated!” Forty percent of Syria’s population was living under the poverty line and more than twenty-five percent of young men were unemployed. Consequently, many Syrians were immigrating to neighboring countries looking for work and a better life.
According to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), between 2003-2004, two million Syrians could not obtain basic needs. Fifty-six percent of Syria’s rural population depend on agriculture for survival, and in 2004, more than seventy-seven percent of them were landless. Today, the situation is substantially worse despite Assad’s June 2014 referendum campaign dubbed“Sawa” to “improve” Syria’s economy. In fact, the overall poverty rate has now reached eighty percent.

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Not Alright With Syria’s Alawites

Growing Resentment Splinters Assad’s Power Base

Partner with the Syrian Rebels

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By Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai

In his speech on Wednesday, President Obama announced that the United States will increase training and arming for the moderate Syria rebels. Given the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), that is the correct move: Syria’s moderate rebels are as important as ever. Much like the Kurdish peshmerga in nearby Iraq, they could serve as a strategic partner for the Obama administration and its budding international coalition in Syria. In fact, since any serious attempt to counter the self-styled Islamic State will require sustained military action inside Syria. The moderate and militarily effective Syrian rebel groups, such as Harakat Hazm or the Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade, are uniquely positioned to be of assistance. And, importantly, they are eager to do so.

Since the start of the Syrian revolution, the opposition has sought a strategic partnership with the United States. But after years of broken promises, many are dubious of the Obama administration. They do not want to be used in the fight against ISIS, then left to fend for themselves against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the country’s other jihadist groups. Nor do they want to be latter-day sahwa fighters, the Sunni tribesmen in Iraq who aligned with the United States to oust al-Qaeda but were then left to confront the sectarian machinations of Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister at the time, on their own.

Therefore, in order to overcome this crisis of trust between the Syrian opposition and the United States, the Obama administration must view the rebels as allies in the battle to bring stability back to the Middle East — which is in the interest of the United States and other Western powers. The Obama administration could, for example, ensure that the rebels can protect their areas from aerial bombardment by the Assad regime, or perhaps provide them with advanced weaponry to push back against pro-Assad militias from Aleppo to Damascus and southern Syria. Absent such measures, Syria’s moderate rebels will continue to fare poorly on the battlefield. More concerning, however, is that defections from the Free Syrian Army to groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate will continue unabated and may even increase.

However, if the Obama administration does in fact enlist the rebels in its newest effort to destroy ISIS, then this could swing the momentum on the battlefield in their favor. Once they start taking real control of areas — at present, the rebels hold comparatively less territory than the Assad regime and ISIS — then the Syrian Opposition Coalition can begin to carry out its political duties by working with local councils, helping provide social services, and eventually organizing local elections to bring some semblance of stability to rebel-controlled areas. Admittedly, that is quite a ways off, but the first step in stabilizing Syria is remembering that what is left of the moderate opposition is not a burden to America, but rather an important ally.

Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai is a research assistant in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute. A political refugee from Syria, Oula is involved in the Syrian protest movement.

Source:

Fikra Forum The Washington Institute for Near East Policy 

Syrians must not let the extremists undermine their revolution

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Kafranbel/Syria

By Oula Abdulhamid 

Velvet revolutions are desirable, but a revolution, by its nature, is an extreme solution to an extreme situation. Revolutions often turn violent, igniting civil wars and attracting extremism – whether in individuals, ideologies or agendas – overwhelming moderate voices, the voices of reason.

This is our story in Syria today. The new hegemonic power emerging on the scene is political Islam in its most radical manifestation. Unless we can identify the reasons for this development and find ways to address it, the possibility of a return to peace and stability in the country and the achievement of communal reconciliation while respecting the democratic aspirations of the people will be next to nil.

The ongoing radicalization of Syrian rebels is in no small part a product of the violent crackdown initiated by Bashar Assad’s regime. It sought from the very beginning of the revolution to eliminate the young and moderate leaders of the initially nonviolent protest movement through detention, assassination and dislocation.

By embarking on a violent campaign against the early protesters and their host communities, Assad created an environment of anger and despair that by its nature was conducive to the emergence of extremist elements. The regime, as it has done since the 1970s, ensured that chaos would survive. Previously, it had done this regionally in such places as Lebanon and Iraq, but it now applied this in Syria. Hundreds of extremists were released from regime prisons, and Assad exploited the negative consequences to his advantage, re-engaging with the international community with Russian and Iranian backing.

The negligible support that moderate rebels received from the international community, often in the form of nonlethal aid such as communications equipment and night-vision goggles, at a time when Gulf donors were busy supplying cash and weapons to more extreme factions, proved another crucial factor in the ongoing marginalization of moderate elements from the scene, allowing for the effective hijacking of the revolution by extremists.

The choices confronting pro-democracy activists are now harder than ever. Discrepancy, confusion, loss and a deep sense of betrayal tend to color the view of most at this stage. What is happening in their circles is not a clash of ideas, however.

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The Struggle for Syria’s Soul  

Syrian students in Damascus arrive for the first day of school. (AFP Photo/Anwar Amro)

Syrian students in Damascus arrive for the first day of school. (AFP Photo/Anwar Amro)

By Oula Abdulhamid 

A personal account of Baathist and Islamic indoctrination in Syria’s schools

Mine was not a normal childhood with clean schools, happy classrooms and unbiased education. But like ninety percent or more of Syria’s students, my personal education experience in Damascus was very similar to a military camp experience spent in soviet-style buildings that felt like prisons! Indeed, we were prisoners inside our classrooms. But our prison-guards had agendas that at their heart were irreconcilable, and seem to have been united only in their belief that we, the embodiments of the future and its true heirs, needed to be subjugated.

Growing up under the Baath Party system, all that we really learned was how to obey the authorities, because they were in control of every aspect of our lives. We were not treated as individuals with unique personalities, but as objects that needed to be subjugated, controlled and even militarized. We were all brainwashed and pressed into the service of our de facto masters, the Assads in their holy resistance against enemies near and far. Our educational system was never meant to liberate and empower, but to shame, humiliate and make us all conform to the dictated norms of obedience without question! Fear and humiliation were our school curriculum!

There is no way out! Systematic dehumanization and brainwashing under Assad regime begins at a very early age. Indeed, our indoctrination began in the First Grade. Rote memorization was the essence of our education. Any deviation from the rules could result in expulsion; we were always threatened. There was no place for discussion or critical thinking. In elementary school, most of us were pressed irrespective of our will into the Baath Vanguards Organization (Talae’a al-Baath), founded by Hafez al-Assad in 1974. Whether the child was enrolled in a public school or one of the few remaining semi-private schools catering to the elite, he or she was subject to Baath indoctrination. “Unity, Liberty, Socialism” is the Baath Party motto that we needed to memorize “exactly like we memorize our names” Military Studies teachers told us. We had to write it down on our notebooks, on the top of the chalkboards, and repeat it every morning at the beginning of the school day as well as at the end of some long and boring lectures often delivered by our Baathists. “Unity” referred to pan-Arabism, while “Liberty” and “Socialism” came as expression of hatred towards the imperialist capitalist West.

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