The fight for az-Zabadani - A battle (n)ever seen before

Since the Syrian uprising has escalated into a full-scale war on various fronts inside the country, the mountainous Qalamoun region has gained significant strategic importance. Whoever controls the Syrian-Lebanese border in western Rif Dimashq is capable of influencing the wider Damascus area and its infrastructure. The #1/M2 motorway links the capital with neighbouring Lebanon and Beirut itself. Moreover, the M5 motorway - heading all the way from Jordan in the south to Aleppo in the north and connecting several of Syria’s most important towns and cities - could be blocked (or held open) by those who possess the Qalamoun. One cannot underestimate the significance of these roads to both the rebels and the Baath-regime forces.

Yabroud, taken from Google maps

The Syrian-Lebanese border has seen various battles over these roads in the last 2.5 years. In 2013, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), to a heavy extent relying on the help of Hezbollah militiamen, started a large operation to regain full control over the area east of Damascus. SAA and Hezbollah started their attack during mid November, entering the fighting zone from the north and pushing southwards along M5 motorway. The battle of Qalamoun itself lasted for nearly half a year and resulted in a major victory for the forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. However, what is especially interesting is one certain battle fought during this offensive: the battle for Yabroud. 

In fact, the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) conducted sorties against Yabroud, defended mainly by fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) as well as Islamic Front and Free Syrian Army (FSA), quite from the beginning of the offensive. SAA and Hezbollah closed in to the town during mid December and were ready to enter it - at least according to their own statements which were repeated several times until the fighting for the town ultimately began. For it was not until March 2014 that fighting started in the outskirts. 

Having a quick look at Yabroud reveals the unique position it was built into. The town lies in a ravine and is flanked by hills to the east and to the west. Only five larger streets lead into the city: two from the north and one from each the east, west and south. Being in possession of these roads is the key to the city and makes it quite easy to keep incoming enemies from entering. Nevertheless, a town laying in between heights on both sides faces a permanent threat: being shelled from above.

Photo: Panoramio

Photo: Panoramio

It is by no means surprising that the regime‘s forces attack began by starting to secure the hills surrounding Yabroud. Before the urban fighting started, a group of Hezbollah commandos is said to have infiltrated the town and killed 13 rebel commanders. Just one day later, fighters loyal to al-Assad feigned an attack to the west of the town while they actually entered it from the east. Supported by continuous artillery fire, air raids and a lack of cohesion between the defending groups, SAA and Hezbollah managed to conquer and secure Yabroud in not more than five days. As always, propaganda from both sides and the lack of verifiable information makes it nearly impossible to estimate the number of rebels’ and loyalists’ casualties. However, this was a scattering defeat for JN and their allied forces and a decisive victory for the Syrian regime. Hezbollah even published several Nasheeds praising the fighting. 

Why it is so important to describe a two year old battle? Because right now there is a battle raging in the Qalamoun region that is astonishingly similar to what is written above: the battle for az-Zabadani.

At the beginning of July 2015, the Syrian regime started the offensive against the last major rebel stronghold left in the Qalamoun region. The town is located in between high grounds to the north-western and south-eastern direction. Outer districts are partly built into steep drops, towering about the city centre. The town is crossed by #113 dual carriage way, besides Barada St going parallel from the south-west, basically the only major street leading into the settlement. This resembles Yabroud. 

az-Zabadani, taken from Google maps

Photo: Panoramio

Photo: Panoramio

Photo: Panoramio

When SAA, National Defense Forces (NDF) and Hezbollah, supported by Iranian officers, started the offensive some two weeks ago, many - most likely also the Syrian officials themselves - suspected this to be a fairly quick to earn victory for Assad’s forces and allies; especially as they had encountered a similar battle before. Like in Yabroud, the defending forces mainly consist of a coalition of JN and Ahrar ash-Sham. After SyAAF helicopters and fighter bombers as well as SAA artillery began to pound the town, Hezbollah infantry went forward coming from western direction. Jamyat neighbourhood, overlooking az-Zabadani, was captured in the first days of the attack. But the offensive stalled only days after it had been initiated. Loyalist forces also tried to break the defenders’ lines in as-Sultani to the south-east of the town. 

Since then, a daily ritual can be seen on social networks. Both sides regularly claim territorial gains and say that they could inflict heavy losses on their foe. Interestingly, the footage that emerges on the Internet on a daily basis rarely shows different spots in town which leads to the guess that the battle has basically resulted in a draw.

The exact reasons for this stalemate are not exactly to be determined, though some major differences to the battle for Yabroud are obvious:

1) In fact, al-Assad’s forces and Hezbollah only control the high grounds to az-Zabadani’s west, but not on the opposite side of the town. Of course, that still enables the regime to overlook az-Zabadani and direct own artillery fire into it. Indeed, you can guess that rebel observers in the eastern parts of the city will do everything to track enemy movements and more importantly look for artillery positions they are being shot at from. It has already been reported (though unconfirmed) that SAA artillery came under fire from inside the town.

2) It is hard to evaluate what the effects of persistent SyAAF attacks and artillery fire are. During the last two years of war, the Air Force has been consistently struggling from a lack of maintenance and suffered losses. A former SyAAF pilot captured by JN stated just days ago that not more than 45 helicopters are in flying condition in all of Syria. Although this very number is hard to verify, it seems likely that the SyAAF is not able to conduct the same amount of sorties as in 2013. Of course, this would have direct influences on the defenders’ condition.

3) Hezbollah forces are now in their fourth year of fighting in this war. Pictures have emerged lately showing militiamen of a very young age. That could be a sign for that Hezbollah generally has lost too many battle hardened fighters during past years and is now forced to fill up its ranks with young, unexperienced fighters.

4) Lastly, the rebel fighters inside az-Zabadani knew about their fate. The city has surely been fortified for weeks if not months before the offensive eventually started. It is to be assumed that tunnels and bunkers were built inside / under the town, booby traps and IEDs were placed and probably precautions were taken to prevent raids like those conducted in Yabroud. 

The ongoing battle in az-Zabadani will show whether the Syrian regime is at least capable of keeping the Damascene hinterland free of enemy forces. It would be an important victory in a year that has been nothing but disastrous to al-Assad and his allies.

1 Kommentar:

ruso hat gesagt…

Now Al Qaeda terrorists are rebels?