The Battle of Qalamoun was the longest and fiercest battle in Syria’s three-year civil war. The rebels held tenaciously on to their last stronghold of Yabroud for five months under cruel battering, until the victorious Syrian and Hizballah forces finally marched into the town on Sunday, March 16.
The Syrian army first launched air strikes on Nov. 15, 2013, to soften up rebel positions in the town of Qara in the strategic Qalamoun Mountains and cut their supply lines from Lebanon to Damascus. Syrian rebels were using the mountain range as their rear base for operations around Damascus.
For its part, government forces had been using the nearby highway No. 5 to connect Damascus with the central Homs province. Many of their weapons depots were located in the area
The Qalamoun Mountains – the northeastern section of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains (the Western name for the Eastern Lebanon Mountain Range) – lie northwest of the Syrian capital of Damascus. Their geography endows them with unique strategic value.
On 14 March, in the last stretch of the battle for Yabroud, the gateway to Qalamoun, Hizballah fighters approached the town from the west as a diversion, while Syrian Army troops attacked from the east, each side providing the other with covering fire support.
The rebels were caught in this pincer movement under heavy bombardment.
Supply lines cut off to Syrian rebels in rural Damascus
Fighting raged at the eastern entrance of the city, which suffered 15 air strikes that day. The rebels brought in reinforcements and regrouped – to no avail. The first Hizballah and government forces had already burst into the town.
Although one of the strongest rebel groups was posted at Mar Maroun hill east of Yabroud, it fell to the Syrian army without notable resistance, along with all the hills surrounding the key town.
Syrian forces then seized control of Yabroud’s eastern approaches and northeastern boundary and advanced into the city.
That evening, rebel commanders met and decided to abandon the town, their last stronghold in the Qalamoun range, leaving only the Islamist Al-Nusra front to fight on.
On 16 March, Syrian and Hizballah fighters entered the town from the east.
The loss of Yabroud has cut rebel supply lines to the forces still holding out in rural Damascus against a government army siege which is starving these areas of food, power and clean water.
Straight after their triumph, DEBKA Weekly's intelligence sources report that Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah spoke on the phone.
The agreed that their armies would start executing the secret deal to which Iran was a party which they struck last September before embarking on the Qalamoun campaign.
Victory celebrated by the gift of a mountain range for Hizballah
Under that deal, our sources reveal, the 8,000 square-kilometer area of the Syrian Qalamoun range was promised by the Syrian ruler to Hizballah as a reward for its sterling contribution to the Assad regime’s war.
Our military sources outline the strategic implications of the transfer of this piece of Syrian territory to Hizballah ownership, as a sort of statelet.
1. A long section of the Syrian-Lebanese border is erased and shifted eastward to a new line, which parallels Syrian Highway 5. This highway links Damascus to the northern Syrian town of Homs and Latakia in the West.
The Syrian-deal with Hizballah therefore has the historic effect of redrawing the 98-year old boundaries laid out between Syria and Lebanon in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between Great Britain and France with Russia’s assent for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.
2. Hizballah has gained a realm of its own for the conduct of its affairs independently of central governments in Damascus or Beirut.
3. The Qalamoun range is transformed into a barrier separating Syria from Lebanon, the while endowing Hizballah with a superb strategic vantage point for monitoring events in Lebanon. The area under its lofty oversight arches out from its new mountain fief to South Beirut and southern Lebanon and further east to the Shebaa Farms, the disputed Hermon strip controlled by Israel – a crescent encompassing Lebanon from the south, east and north.
Hizballah moves its military strength and weapons out of South Lebanon
4. Hizballah’s grip on southern Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley abutting on the Syrian border will be reinforced form the east. Furthermore, its missile pads, logistic bases and arsenals can be moved to safer, more easily defensible sites in the new Hizballah possession.
5. By removing most of its military forces to this stronghold, Hizballah can also reduce its dependence on South Lebanon and use it as a buffer zone against Israel.
6. Up until now, Hizballah kept its main arms depots stored in Syrian bases out of reach of Israeli attacks. Those stores can now be relocated safely to the Qalamoun Mountains.
For Israel this is a major setback. Its tactics for keeping advanced Iranian arms out of Hizballah’s hands hitherto were to bomb the shipments on their way from Syria to Lebanon as they crossed the border. That border has now shifted and the bulk of Hizballah personnel and weapons will be cached in the Qalamoun mountains which is formally sovereign Syrian territory.
7. The mountainous terrain in any case presents a difficult target to reach.