The Last Battle?

May 11, 2015

5 min read

Mordechai Kedar

The Kalamon mountains range from Mount Hermon northwards for tens of kilometers, overlooking the Lebanon Valley to the west. The official boundary between Lebanon and Syria runs along the crest of the mountain range, with the western slopes of the mountains part of Lebanon and the eastern slopes part of Syria. The Beirut-Damascus highway serves as the northern edge.

The location of the range has strategic importance, because whoever controls it controls what lies to the east – and can exercise that control with firearms or binoculars – as well as the roads that connect Damascus with central and northern Syria, enabling him to cut off Damascus from the rest of the country. Westwards, he who controls the mountains controls the southern Beqaa valley and its populace, most of them Shiites.

The Kalamon mountains, like Mount Hermon at their southern end, are covered with snow in the winter. That prevents most wide-ranging or significant military activity involving the transportation of soldiers and either heavy or medium sized weapons. Infantry, however, carrying light arms, can move around the area fairly easily. As a result, a double massing of forces has occurred there in the past few weeks: from the east, from inside Syria, fighters sent by various Sunni organizations, Jabhat al-Nusra being the first, have appeared on the scene in order to built fortifications, take positions and prepare for a westward offensive push into Lebanon. From the west, Hezbollah has been streaming forces to the area in order to block the rebels and force them out of Lebanon.

Before the start of hostilities, the Sunni rebels succeeded in achieving an important psychological point: they announced the unification of five organizations under one name “Jaysh al-Fath”, “the Attacking Army”. The organizations are Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Harakat al-Muthanna, Bayt al-Madis and al-Jaysh al-Hurr, “The Free Army”. The two most important organizations are Jabhat al-Nusra, connected to al Qaeda, and al-Jaysh al-Hurr, the “Free Army”. The only missing organization is ISIS, which may, however, join later. The unification is expected to make it easier to coordinate operations while also striking fear of the joint array of forces into the hearts of Hezbollah Shi’I fighters.

The announcement of the organizations made public after the unification says (my additions are in the brackets, M.K.) “intended to fight against the Nusayris [the Alawite’s previous name, considered an insult], the Persian dogs [a pejorative referring here to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards] and the pigs of the Party of Satan [an insulting term for Hezbollah, whose name means the Party of Allah].

It is interesting to note that last week the rebels conquered a town in northwest Syria, Jisr al-Shughour, and that this accomplishment was achieved after several organizations united under the same name, “Jaysh al-Fath”. The conquest of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour is a very important achievement for the rebels as they attempt to overrun the area of Lattakia on the Mediterranean coast, situated in the northern part of the Alawite region. The battle for the Kalamon mountains of southern Syria is a direct result of the failure of Assad and Hezbollah to keep Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour, in the northern part of the range, in their hands.

Anyone who observed the stream of forces reaching the Kalamon mountains realized that once the snows melted, the battle would begin, and that is just what happened with a vengeance last Monday, as the Sunnis decided to commence hostilities before the Hezbollah  had completed their preparations. The battle began in a hilly, rocky, scrub-covered area, where the distances between the two sides are sometimes just a few meters. Both sides have suffered casualties but in the first two days, Hezbollah lost four of its commanders, and there are rumors that the rebels lost three of theirs. Nevertheless, when one side publicizes the casualties of the other, it is quite possible that there is psychological warfare involved on both sides, with each trying to demoralize the other’s soldiers.

As far as Hezbollah is concerned, there are various estimates of its losses since it became involved in the Syrian crisis three years ago: there are those who claim that about 900 fighters have been killed and others who claim it is double that number. Thousands have been wounded. Hezbollah does not announce its casualty figures, but there are many Lebanese, even among the Shiite population, who accuse Nasrallah of sinking Hezbollah into a fight that was not theirs to begin with. On the other hand, it is clear to all – and Nasrallah said so in his speech on May 5th – that if Assad’s regime falls, Hezbollah will go down with it. Everyone knows that if Hezbollah is defeated in Syria, the Sunni Jihadists will overrun Lebanon looking for Shiites to behead.

There are also reports that prior to the Kalamon battle, Hezbollah transferred soldiers, heavy weaponry and rockets to the site taken from other areas, including the Golan, considered a less central arena. The significance of this move is that those areas may fall into the hands of the rebels, who will go after the Druze “heretic” villagers living there and on the southeastern slopes of Mount Hermon.  A few months ago, about 30 Druze were killed in one day of clashes with Islamists.

Other reports say that Hezbollah originally planned to name the Kalamon clashes the “Crucial Battle” and call up all its reserve forces to take part in what would be a decisive confrontation.  Nasrallah, however, after rethinking the situation, decided to settle for a less bombastic effort whose goal is simply to stop the rebels from advancing. The reason for this decision is the fear of too many casualties, which could arouse the Shiite public’s anger against him. Another possible reason is the fact that the plans were leaked by an opposition inside Hezbollah, and once revealed, lost the counted-on element of surprise.

Except that the truth concerning Hezbollah actions against Syrian rebels and especially Jabhat al-Nusra is to be found somewhere else, namely with the tens of Hezbollah militants taken prisoner by ISIS and other Sunni groups during the last two years. The fear hovering in the Hezbollah air is that a video showing the beheading of Hezbollah prisoners will go internationally viral, showing what happens to Hezbollah Shiite fighters whose commanders and leader have no way to save them from being butchered. A video of this nature will show up the true weakness of Hezbollah and Nasrallah, and threaten the Hezbollah leader’s ability to persuade his fighers to battle in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

According to the Alarabiya, a Saudi news channel, some of the prisoners’ relatives announced this week that they are vehemently against what Hezbollah is undertaking in Syria and Yemen and stressed that “they and their kidnapped sons refuse to be responsible for what Hezbollah does in Syria, Yemen and other places”. One woman relative of a prisoner, said “We have no connection with ‘Hezbollat” [referring to it as the Party of the goddess “Allath”] and the Party of Satan [a pejorative for Hezbollah] and we are shaking ourselves off from the organization and its activities.” Other family members demanded that the Hezbollah refrain from causing damage to the town of Arsal [on the Lebanon-Syrian border, overrun by Syrian rebels] and its residents, because “it is not just that we pay the price instead of Syrians, Yemenis and others, especially in light of the fact that our [prisoner] sons are still alive and may be harmed if Hezbollah takes action there in any way.”

An opinion of this nature broadcast in public is witness to the internal difficulties which Hezbollah is forced to take into account in its fight for its own survival and for the continued survival of the Shiites, all of whom are now under the real and imminent existential threat posed by the Jihadist Sunnis.

The war in Syria is intertwined with the future of Lebanon and it is a war to the death. And the rivers of blood that may soon flow in the waters of Lebanon will overshadow the blood-and-tear-filled swamps of Syria.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Israel National News

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