Scores of Syrian rebel fighters were evacuated from the besieged village of Zabadani, in the vicinity of the Syrian border with Lebanon, to be swapped for 300 families of Shiites besieged since September by rebels in two Idlib villages. The deal was brokered by the United Nations.
The Syrian rebel fighters would travel from the town of Zabadani to Beirut Airport and travel to Turkey, a source close to negotiations told Reuters. Simultaneously around 300 families from two besieged towns in a rebel-held area in Idlib province would go to Turkey and fly to Beirut from there. The deal is one of several negotiated by the UN for local ceasefires and swaps between various parties fighting in Syria. The ceasefires in Zabadani and the two Shiite towns were brokered by Iran and Turkey in September.
The winner from this deal is obviously neither the Syrian government, nor the Syrian rebels. It’s Lebanon’s Hezbollah. A closer look at the reality on the ground, especially in Qalamoun Mountains, and at Hezbollah’s political situation in Lebanon show that the Party of God needed this deal more than anyone. The swap was the result of a stalemate influenced not only by the reality of the Syrian front but also Hezbollah’s political calculations at home, in Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s long battles for strategic Zabadani
The battle for Zabadani, a former resort on the highway that links Beirut to Damascus 12 kilometers way of the Masnaa border crossing, started on July 4 2015. Hezbollah forces and Syrian army troops launched an offensive against an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 rebels affiliated with Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front and Islamist and Salafist units of Ahrar al Sham but also unaffiliated locals. Later, Al Nusra Front denied that it had any fighters left in the town.
Zabadani was the most difficult battle of Hezbollah’s second Qalamoun offensive which began in May 2015. Hezbollah quickly took Tallet Moussa, highest peak of Qalamoun Mountains. The first phase was taking territory east of Tfeil promontory, including Aasal al-Ward, Jobeh, Ras al-Maara, cutting off northern rebels from those in Zabadani to the south. Then the fight went north, to Tallet Moussa. Rebels were thus entrenched between Wadi Khayl and Ras Baalbek, where the Lebanese Army also kept them at bay.
Hezbollah, as well as the Syrian government, wanted the Qalamoun Mountains under their control at any price because they wanted to secure their bases and Shiite villages in the vicinity of the border on Lebanese Eastern Bekaa Valley that often came under shelling of the Syrian rebel brigades; for the Syrian government it has strategic importance because it links Damascus to Homs and the relatively safe Mediterranean coast. By losing Zabadani, the rebels also lose their link to the suburbs of Damascus, but by moving fighters to Idlib they reinforce their positions there.
Fighting in Zabadani was not at all easy for Hezbollah and the Syrian army and they used all their force to break through. Hezbollah reportedly used micro drones, tanks, rocket-assisted mortars, and rifle-mounted grenade launchers. The Syrian Fourth Brigade has been using directed missiles, scores of barrel bombs were dropped and the Syrian Air Force conducted intensified raids over the town. The Syrian Observatory for Human rights counted on July 15, 50 airstrikes and missiles that hit Zabadani.
The campaign in Qalamoun was tough, mostly on Hezbollah, although the group managed to achieve its main target – keep Al Nusra Front and other Salafi rebel groups from attacking Hezbollah’s assets in the border area in Eastern Lebanon. Hezbollah also put a lot of effort in the war propaganda to demonstrate to the public that they weren’t taking as many casualties and that the victories came very quickly. But it was obvious that it wasn’t as easy as they wanted it to seem.
While Al Manar, Hezbollah’s main television channel, insisted on announcing how many rebels the party’s militants had killed in Qalamoun and avoided at all cost in presenting the toll on the Party of God’s side, supporters counted the martyrs. A pro-Hezbollahwebsite listed all Hezbollah’s casualties in Qalamoun. Some look very young. For instance Mashour Shamseddine who died doing his jihadist duty in South Lebanon (where there is no fighting), or Ibrahim Mouhammad Fakih, nicknamed Ali Moussa, who died doing his jihadist duty in an unknown location. Sending some of its youngest recruits in the front showed quite some level of strain.
It was also very obvious that, in the absence of a deal like the one brokered by Turkey, Iran and the UN, Hezbollah had little chance of clearing Zabadani of rebel presence. There would always be a rebel brigade causing the Party of God trouble at the Lebanese border.
Saving the Shiites in Syria boosts the image in Lebanon
Since admitting to getting involved on the Syrian front in early 2013, Hezbollah had to rebrand its Resistance role. If, for years, it was the Resistance against Israel its involvement on Syrian soil has to be framed as a form of resistance against the “takfiris”,the Sunni jihadists that tolerate no any religion, including other interpretations of Islam. For the Shiite fighters of Hezbollah, the war against the takfiris is equally the war of the Apocalypse, the same way it is for the jihadist of the Islamic State. There’s a common and very popular explanation for the war in Syria among Hezbollah supporters: that the rebellion against the Assad government is a Zionist conspiracy, as Israel worked with the Gulf States to sponsor Al Qaeda and the Islamic State to destroy the anti-Israeli resistance. Hezbollah, although it has been trying to lose the sectarian label of Shiite militia, has legitimized sending its troops into Syria by telling its supporters that it defends the Shiite shrines that are at risk from the attacks of the Sunni jihadists.
However, Hezbollah’s image as the anti-Israeli Resistance has had to suffer in Lebanon. The Israeli strikes killed two of its main Resistance symbols in the past year: Jihad Moughnieh, son of former military leader Imad Moughnieh, and Samir Kuntar, the “hero of the Resistance” who served 20 years in an Israeli prison for allegedly murdering a family in North Israel. Kuntar died in a strike on Damascus a week ago. In both cases, the mourning was impressive among the supporters and there were vows of retaliation against Israel from Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. However, after Kuntar’s death, Nasrallah said that retaliation will come “at the right time.” The effect of his first speech was that many supporters of Hezbollah in Lebanon doubted that this retaliation would ever come. After all, Hezbollah has had a hard time avenging Imad Moyghnieh himself after his assassination in Damascus nearly ten years ago. Nasrallah came back on the TV screens having had to stress that retaliation against Israel will come at some point in the future.
In this context, when Hezbollah is dealing with a public relations crisis at home, saving 300 Shiites from Syria’s Idlib and finally securing Zabadani are much needed victories that will certainly give a boost to the supporters’ morale.
The piece was published first in Eurasia Diary.