David Schenker and Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai
May 20, 2015. Also available in العربية
The group will no doubt continue 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.
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.