By Vahik Soghom*
he melting of snow in the Qalamoun mountains signals the end of the especially harsh winter of 2015. By extension, it opens the door for the much anticipated “Spring battle” of Hezbollah and the Syrian army against Islamist factions stationed in Qalamoun. The battle is meant to achieve Hezbollah’s goal of cleansing the area of Takfiri militants, who consist mainly of Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra units. Hezbollah is confident of its impending victory in Qalamoun, yet one question that has received little attention revolves around the strategic implications of such a victory in the broader context of the Syrian civil war and the regional struggle against the Islamic state.
The fight for control of the strategic Qalamoun region separating Lebanon from Syria really began with the May 2013 battle of Qusayr in the North. Hezbollah learned to fight in dense urban settings there. Since then, Hezbollah has been bogged down in constant clashes with the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Qalamoun, clashes which extend not only to the Syrian-Lebanese border, but within Lebanese territory itself. In the summer of 2014, fierce clashes between the Lebanese army and Islamist forces in Arsal highlighted the severity of the Takfiri threat faced by the Lebanese. Due to fears of heightened sectarian division within Lebanon, Hezbollah refrained from participating in the battle, and its operations have thus been limited to the Lebanese-Syrian border and the Syrian Qalamoun region.
There are two questions to ask about the upcoming Qalamoun war: what are Hezbollah’s immediate strategic objectives and what are its long term goals? How far is Hezbollah willing to go in helping Assad and Iran reconquer Syria and defeat the Takfiri militants in the region? The first objective is to protect Lebanese border villages from militants, a threat that has been hanging over Bekaa residents for the past two years. Secondly, the objective is to impede the infiltration and spread of Takfiri ideology in Lebanon. The under-equipped Lebanese army does not stand a chance against a Takfiri assault, especially one that is coordinated among rival Islamist factions. Thirdly, by pacifying the roads between Lebanon and Syria, Hezbollah will secure access to Damascus and Homs.
But what if Hezbollah is victorious in Qalamoun, what will it do next? Almost certainly, Hezbollah will expand operations to key fronts crucial to the survival of the Assad regime. Given the heavy losses Hezbollah has suffered in Syria, it will be hesitant to spread itself too thin.
In recent weeks, the Islamic State has been targeting crucial supply lines that, if successfully disrupted, will prove fatal for the survival of Assad’s forces in the north of the country. On March 23, fierce clashes were reported around Sheikh Hilal village on the eastern edge of Hama province. This assault by the Islamic State, which included a reported massacre of civilians, was meant to cut off the Salamiyah-Khanasir-Aleppo highway, a vital regime supply line for its Aleppo front. Another goal is accessing Idlib province, which is mostly dominated by al-Nusra and its coalition of Islamist forces. If IS successfully blocks the highway, Aleppo will run the risk of falling entirely to rebel and Islamist factions.
Another crucial front that has made the headlines in the past couple of weeks is Idlib, where a coalition of Islamist forces, headed by al-Nusra, managed to expel regime forces from the city. Though the regime has referred to its defeat as a “regrouping operation” and sent reinforcements from Hama to recapture the city, this battle will likely be extremely challenging. Part of the difficulty, and one that applies to all major fronts, is the Syrian army’s drastic losses in men over the past few years. The regime has long lost the luxury of recruiting soldiers from its civilian population, and only by calling in reinforcements from other fronts can it manage to deal with military crises. But what makes recapturing Idlib particularly difficult has to do with al-Qaeda and its newly-formed Jaish al-Fath coalition. Over the past year, al-Nusra has been overshadowed by the Islamic State’s expansion and public display of brutality, but looking at al-Nusra’s success in Idlib province as well as the Southern front, it is giving the IS a run for its money. And with fertile ground for expansion and episodes of success in Yemen and North Africa, al-Qaeda will improve rather than decline, and al-Nusra will benefit from this general resurgence. If, as expected, Idlib remains in the hands of the Jaish al-Fath coalition, the regime will virtually have lost Idlib province. Assad’s Syria will then only be limited to the western stretch of the country, comprised of the provinces of Latakia and Tartous on the Mediterranean, the central to western portions of Hama and Homs provinces, Damascus province, as well as parts of Aleppo.
But there is another crucial province the fate of which is at stake—Daraa. Though the regime still has a significant presence in the province, half of the city and most of its countryside is controlled by a mix of FSA and Islamist factions. Its neighboring Quneitra has witnessed a growing presence of Jabhat al-Nusra, which is most worrying for both Hezbollah and the regime due to the invaluable strategic importance of the Golan. In the event of the fall of these provinces, the regime will no longer enjoy its status as an Arab resistance state, and Damascus will be further squeezed in and surrounded from all sides. All three fronts mentioned—the eastern, northern, and southern—are crucial for the survival of the regime as well as the total disintegration of Syria.
But for the same reasons, these fronts are equally important for Hezbollah. For now, its priority is to secure Qalamoun and Lebanon’s borders. But in the event of victory in the Qalamoun, Hezbollah will extend its operational activities to other Syrian provinces in which it now lacks a strong presence. Which fronts it will prioritize will depend upon circumstances. Hezbollah’s participation will improve not only the regime’s chances for survival, but also allow the Assad regime to maintain its access to Aleppo, as well as launch a more effective offensive on Idlib. Finally, Hezbollah will increase its role in Quneitra and Deraa provinces. And let us not forget that the regime still has a presence both in Deir el Zor itself as well as the eastern edge of Homs bordering Deir el Zor. If, with much needed assistance from Hezbollah, it is able to fend off IS attacks in Hama, it may even be able to start planning an offensive in Deir el Zor. Whether it will be capable—or even willing—to do so, will depend on the outcome in Qalamoun. Should Hezbollah suffer an unexpected defeat in Qalamoun or a decide to reduce its exposure in Syria following a tough fight, the country will be on the road to partition.
Hezbollah will likely win in Qalamoun. Jabhat al-Nusra and IS will remain its strongest of enemies. Their limited cooperation in Qalamoun will not likely translate into cooperation elsewhere. In fact, a recent report suggests that both factions are ready to hand over Qalamoun to Hezbollah in order to migrate to other fronts in Syria. If so, Hezbollah may be spared a grueling battle near home and be drawn further into Syria. It is worth noting that neither the FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra, nor IS will be the biggest obstacle to Hezbollah’s expanding operations. The strongest opposition will come from its Lebanese supporters who, although ready to sacrifice their sons to protect Lebanon, may not be so willing to commit to slaying distant enemies. For now, however, we must await the outcome of the battle for Qalamoun.
*Vahik Soghom, BA. AUB, MA. Univ of St. Andrews, Humboldt Univ of Berlin