By Radwan Mortada
Both sides in the Syrian conflict – the armed opposition and the Syrian army backed by Hezbollah – are preparing for battle in the Qalamoun Mountains and the hills surrounding Ersal in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. Indeed, both sides believe this showdown is inevitable, according to sources from both camps, because the region in question is a vital artery that feeds fighters and weapons to the Syrian hinterland.
Sources affiliated with the Syrian opposition told Al-Akhbar there was a plan in place for a preemptive attack to retake the Joussieh border crossing, which is located north of Ersal and south of Qusayr, from the Syrian army and Hezbollah. Before the fall of Qusayr, the crossing was in the hands of the opposition fighters. After the Syrian army retook Qusayr with the help of Hezbollah, the opposition militants made two failed attempts to take the crossing.
According to these sources, it is very likely that the attack would start in the next few days. This has been corroborated by reports indicating that the armed groups are planning to retake the crossing before a snowy winter, which usually disrupts supply lines from Lebanon to the northern Damascus countryside.
The armed groups therefore have no choice but to try and retake Joussieh, given the difficulty of smuggling through the northern border in Akkar, and the fact that the route through Qusayr is now under regime control.
In September of last year, the armed groups sought to prepare for the snow season by seizing the villages of the Orontes Basin and carving out a direct route between Qusayr and Akkar. Their attempt failed, however, thanks to Hezbollah’s intervention. Now, the armed opponents of the Syrian regime want to repeat the same thing, only in Joussieh.
Reports indicate that the decision to attack at any cost has already been made. The assault would aim to soften the enemy’s defenses with suicide attacks and then encircle the town of Joussieh from multiple directions.
To this end as well, the armed groups are preparing ambushes and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Qalamoun and the Syrian towns of Yabroud and Qara, to thwart any counterattacks by Hezbollah or the Syrian army. The same reports also indicate that the militants possess advanced missiles, which they have been storing in anticipation of this confrontation.
The Qalamoun Mountains are an extension of the hills of Ersal in Lebanon, and to reach them, it is necessary to pass through the latter. Pro-opposition villages on the Syrian side surround the mountains, which, though seemingly quiet, are home to hundreds of armed opposition fighters.
Armed Syrian opposition groups have established a fiefdom in this area. In these mountains and barren hills, many a car bomb and IED have been prepared, killing dozens of people. And out of these mountains, many suicide bombers set out to blow up their targets, most recently Abu Musab al-Ordoni, whose last name translates to the “Jordanian.”
Ordoni, using a four-by-four vehicle packed with a large quantity of explosives rigged somewhere in the Qalamoun mountains, attacked a Syrian army checkpoint in Maaloula ahead of al-Nusra Front’s assault on the historic Christian village. Up until the last second before he blew himself up, Ordoni was in contact with the commander of al-Nusra Front in Qalamoun via mobile phone, according to the militants who like to show off the voice recording of that last phone call.
The attack that the militants claim to be preparing is part of the opposition’s wider offensive, which the militants began in Maaloula and has since encompassed several battles in east and west Ghouta.
Through these battles, the militants seek to establish “safe areas” under their control to prevent the Syrian army from completing its operations in Ghouta, and to break the Syrian army’s siege. So far they have failed to achieve this goal.
One famous armed opposition camp in the border region near Ersal is the al-Walid Military Camp. To be sure, there are as many camps as there are militants who belong to different nationalities and espouse different ideologies. The militants can be Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Saudi, or Kuwaiti. They can also be radical Islamists from al-Nusra Front or Liwaa Ahrar al-Qalamoun.
Ultimately, however, the last word here belongs to the Military Leadership Council, which answers to the Shura Council of al-Nusra Front. A Kuwaiti “emir” leads al-Nusra Front’s groups in Qalamoun.
An August statement from Lebanese Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn reveals that most of the suspects in the July Bir al-Abed bombing, as well as the slaying of Lebanese army soldiers at a checkpoint in Bekaa, are holed up in these mountains.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition