BEIRUT/BAALBEK: Hezbollah fighters and the Syrian army made major gains Wednesday seizing control of the highest peak in the Qalamoun region along the border with Lebanon, after gaining large swaths of territory in fierce fighting that killed 53 Syrian jihadis.
Security sources told The Daily Star that regime forces and its Lebanese allies swept areas around Tallit Moussa, after wresting full control over the peak that lies at least 2,500 meters above sea level and is considered one of the most strategic positions in Qalamoun.
Syrian state TV credited the advance to the army and “the Lebanese resistance,” an unusual public acknowledgement of Hezbollah’s role in the battle for an area used by the insurgents to ferry supplies between Syria and Lebanon.
The advance came after at least nine rebel positions fell into Hezbollah’s hands following heavy exchanges of artillery and rocket fire along the ridge between Al-Juba, Ras al-Maara and Aasal al-Ward in central Qalamoun.
Four Hezbollah fighters were killed during the fighting, a security source said.
Control of Tallit Moussa gives Hezbollah and the Syrian army a major foothold in the area, given that the peak overlooks the vast expanse of the Qalamoun mountain range and could be used to monitor militant movements as far as the outskirts of the northeastern Lebanese border town of Arsal.
The capture of Tallit Moussa will also allow Hezbollah to control major crossings linking Qalamoun to Lebanese border towns.
The regime and Hezbollah would most likely attempt to wrest control over Wadi al-Zamarani and Wadi Ajram, which link Arsal to Syrian territory. The two valleys have been repeatedly used by militants to infiltrate Lebanon and attack Lebanese villages over the past two years.
Earlier Wednesday, Syrian troops, backed by Hezbollah fighters, seized control of about 50 percent of the outskirts of Ras al-Maara and advanced toward the highlands of Jabal al-Barouh, which is geographically linked to Tallit Moussa. Hezbollah and the Syrian army captured the area after fierce clashes left scores of militants dead or wounded.The advance pushed surviving militants toward the outskirts of Arsal, namely the areas of Wadi al-Rahwe and Wadi Hmeyed.
Militants also withdrew toward Tallit Njasa, located on the outskirts of the Lebanese town of Ras Baalbek.
Wednesday’s advance was the latest in a series of gains by Hezbollah and the Syrian army following more than a week of clashes with Islamist militants.
Hezbollah and the Syrian army Tuesday seized two hilltop positions in Qalamoun – west of Ras al-Maara and east of the Lebanese town of Nahleh.
In related news, security sources said ISIS fighters attempted to infiltrate the outskirts of Arsal in an effort to join the Qalamoun battle against the Nusra Front and the Qalamoun branch of the Army of Conquest.
The Lebanese Army foiled the attempt, unleashing artillery salvos against what the sources described as “suspicious activity.”
The sources said ISIS fighters were forced to retreat back in the direction of Homs after the Army of Conquest, a coalition of rebel fighters in Qalamoun, also unleashed heavy artillery against them.