After the Speech, Back to the War: The Battle for Qalamoun
World attention has been focused on the drama of the chemical attack near Damascus, Congressional debates surrounding the Obama adminstration’s stated desire to strike Syria, and a surprising twist in which Syria appeared to agree to get rid of its chemical weapons. But amid all this sound and fury, a critical battle is unfolding in central Syria: a coalition of rebel groups, mainly composed of forces from Liwa al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, is pushing government forces back in the Qalamoun region just north of Damascus.
This area is of high strategic importance: it sits astride the main highway from Damascus to the battlefronts of Homs., Moreover, it is home to dozens of military facilities including the 155th Brigade (infamous as the launching platform of the SCUD missiles that have rained down on Aleppo for months), the HQ base of the 3rd Armored Divison, An Nasiriyah Airbase, and numerous small logistic bases and fortified positions. The dominant terrain feature in the area is Mount Snir, a long ridge which runs north-south between the rebel-held towns of Yabrud and Rankus, parallel with the Damascus-Homs road in the valley beneath it. Recent advances have given the rebels almost total control of Mt. Snir, which provides positions with excellent visibility for shelling regime convoys on the vital highway, just 3 miles away. These advances form the northern half of a pincer movement. Meanwhile, the southern pincer is advancing from the rebel-held Ghouta region outside Damascus, in an attempt to link up with the northern pincer and cut the Damascus-Homs highway.
In late August, the rebel offensive first scored a notable success and attracted attention by capturing hundreds of Konkours and Milan anti-tank guided missiles from one of the 3rd Armored Division’s outlying logistical bases in Qalamoun. Securing these critical heavy weapons was a major strategic success, which can help account for the subsequent advances of the Qalamoun offensive.
Further successes followed. On Sept. 1, the forces of Liwa al-Islam, on the southern pincer, demonstrated their talent for mounting well-organized operations in the successful seizure of the 81st Brigade base in the town of Ruhaiba. That battle can be seen in these two videos, which show Liwa al-Islam’s penchant for coordinated assaults, uniforms and high quality propaganda documentation of their victories. The success that Liwa al-Islam has had in the Qalamoun region, showcases why the group is fast becoming the largest, most renowned and most effective rebel group in Damascus.
A few days later, on Sept. 4th, the northern pincer advanced again with the seizure of Ma’aloula, a small Christian town in the center of Mt. Snir. A combined rebel force of men from Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other, smaller groups seized Ma’aloula following a 2-part suicide bomb and infantry assault on the regime checkpoint at the entrance to the town.
The fighting around Ma’aloula has since become the subject of a propaganda skirmish: the Syrian government and its supporters have accused the rebels of shelling the town indiscriminately and terrorizing the Christian residents, while the rebels have made videos showing themselves “protecting” the churches of Ma’aloula and speaking with residents who blame government airstrikes for damage to the town. Different Syrian Christian religious figures have spoken out in support of competing versions of these events.
This propaganda battle leaves an unclear picture of the military situation on the Mt. Snir front. Rebel commanders have claimed that they withdrew from the town in order to prove their committment to the town’s safety and spare it from further government bombardment. However, Syrian State TV reports have shown relatively large Syrian Army forces engaged in counterattacks on the town, and videos taken by rebels inside Ma’aloula show a high rate of artillery and air strikes on the town. Thus, the rebel claims that the withdrawal from Ma’aloula is motivated by concern for the Christian minority population may simply be a convenient excuse for a retreat in the face of superior firepower.
In any case, the fighting around Ma’aloula is just one part of a broader strategic landscape in the Qalamoun region. In general, the news is not good for Assad: until the start of this offensive, Qalamoun was a relatively quiet sector. The area was an important rear-area where the Syrian Army safely located logistical/command facilities and resupplied the northern battlefields. Now, much like the rebel offensive against the Alawite coastal regions in August, the rebellion has “brought the fight home” to Assad in Qalamoun.The quiet is shattered: the supply lines and logistical bases are threatened, and the government has lost one of its few remaining zones of uncontested control that had previously supported its war effort.
For the rebellion, victory on the Qalamoun front means cutting the Homs-Damascus highway and linking the northern and southern pincers, which would connect the rebel-held suburbs of north Damascus with a broad swath of rebel-held countryside all the way to the Lebanese border. On the other hand, for the government, victory means three things: keeping the vital highway open by reclaiming Mt. Snir, preventing a rebel link-up, and holding the archipelago of bases scattered throughout the region in order to prevent the rebels from capturing more heavy weapons.
Neither side is likely to achieve victory anytime soon. It is likely, however, that the rebellion will capture some more isolated bases and small towns, and that it will be able to more easily infiltrate men and supplies over the countryside into the Damascus suburbs. Furthermore, the attrition rate of Syrian Army traffic on the Damascus-Homs highway is likely to increase as convoys are forced to pass under the Grad rockets and captured artillery of the rebel forces on Mt. Snir. Still, it remains unlikely that the highway will be cut entirely, since the Syrian Army will retain the ability to concentrate firepower and make “thunder runs” to clear rebel checkpoints from the road itself.
International media reports have often claimed that Assad has been in a strong strategic position since the government’s victory at Al Qusayr in June. That simplistic narrative was never fully true, and with the success of the Qalamoun offensive we can finally put it to rest. In this long war of attrition the ability to take the fight to the enemy’s home front and supply lines will determine victory. The Qalamoun offensive has done just that, and it deserves more notice.
Jack Mulcaire is a graduate of Occidental College in International Relations and Arabic. During the 2011 Libyan Civil War, he helped lead a group of international volunteers that aided and consulted with local rebel councils and units.