Middle East

Opposition struggles to overcome Yabroud loss

Officers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, walk at Yabroud town in the Damascus countryside, after the soldiers loyal to Assad took control of it from the rebel fighters, in this handout released by Syria's national news agency SANA on March 17, 2014. (REUTERS/SANA)

BEIRUT: The fall of the rebel-held town of Yabroud to Syrian army troops and Hezbollah fighters Sunday has sparked a wave of recriminations among the ranks of the opposition, with frustration boiling over at the “handover” of the town when a rebel unit withdrew in sudden fashion.

The defense of Yabroud, a key rebel stronghold in the mountainous Qalamoun region, was led by militants from the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, in a tenuous partnership with an array of local rebel groups. These local militias have a range of political allegiances and linkages, from moderate Islamists to groups with direct ties to the leadership of the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army, based in Turkey.

Some supporters of the opposition sought to play up positive aspects of the debacle, such as the lack of a civilian bloodbath or the relatively low number of casualties on the rebel side when Syrian army troops and state media finally entered Sunday.

But the negatives far outweigh the positives, as opposition supporters spent the weekend commemorating the fourth year of the uprising with promises to continue the struggle and watching the rebels lose a key town to the regime and its Hezbollah allies, after weeks of boasting that Yabroud would not fall.

Many commentators and activists demanded firm evidence as to whether Yabroud actually “fell” to the regime and its allies or was “sold out.” This echoed of the disappointment when another town near the Lebanese border, Qusair, was seized by regime troops last year amid accusations that the political opposition-in-exile failed to provide adequate support for the rebels, leading to their collapse.

Observers and activists were quick to blame a rebel unit for suddenly withdrawing from the battle, allowing Hezbollah and the Syrian army to advance and seal the fate of Yabroud.

The Nusra Front declined to name the rebel unit responsible for the collapse, as it issued a statement merely saying that “one of the most important Yabroud units” was charged with protecting the strategically important Mar Maroun hill, where the regime-Hezbollah breakthrough finally came Saturday.

“We were surprised to see the army move up the hill with no significant resistance,” the statement by Nusra said. It went on to say that it and a few other militias remained in Yabroud in an attempt to rally the rebel forces, “but to no avail.”

Amer al-Qalamouni, a prominent media activist who has provided details of the offensive over the last few weeks to Arabic-language media, told The Daily Star that a “fifth column” appeared to be responsible for the loss of Yabroud.

Qalamouni declined to name the group, citing security concerns, or the possible reasons for its action. However, he said the opposition-in-exile National Coalition enjoyed less-than-adequate relations and coordination with rebels in Qalamoun.

“A promise of $1 million to help came much too late,” he said. “For this kind of sum to have any impact, it should have been delivered a few weeks ago” and not on the eve of the decisive battle, he said.

The Defense Ministry in the opposition’s provisional government has remained quiet about Yabroud thus far, but is expected to issue a statement Tuesday, according to a spokesman.

Qalamouni echoed the views of some opposition activists in saying that the regime and its allies paid a “high price” in terms of men and equipment in seizing Yabroud and nearby locations.

The activists have claimed the army and Hezbollah suffered up to 1,800 casualties in the 32-day battle, mainly in the ranks of the military, with rebel losses in the low hundreds, although precise figures are impossible to verify.

While Qalamouni said the lack of “sophisticated weapons” certainly hurt the rebel cause, others claimed that some of the better-armed units actually had such weapons but had declined to use them.

As for the wider military implications of the weekend’s loss of Yabroud, some military experts have pointed out that the regime has been unable to concentrate on more than one front at a single time. Despite the huge morale boost it gained from the weekend’s victory in Yabroud, the battles there coincided with grinding stalemate in other areas, such as Deraa in the south or Aleppo in the north or Deir al-Zor in the east.

Moreover, rebel groups have registered a few gains, as the fighting in Qalamoun was raging. While military experts cite Yabroud’s proximity to the Homs-Damascus highway as one of the reasons for its strategic significance, rebels in Hama province seized a village, Morek, located on the highway between Hama and Aleppo, during the Yabroud battle, with little talk of its strategic importance.

For the opposition, one of the few bright spots might lie in the fact that so many have compared Yabroud to Qusair.

At the time, regime supporters were confident that Qusair would spell the end of the armed insurgency, although this hope proved to be misplaced. The more easily excitable regime supporters predicted that the Syrian army would follow the victory in Qusair with assaults on key locations such as the city of Aleppo, and capitalize on the momentum to sweep away the rebels there. Instead, a few months later, a chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus upended any momentum that the regime achieved with the victory in Qusair.

The threat of a Western-led military strike for several days in the fall of last year suddenly made it a possibility that the regime’s days were numbered, until a countermove – the agreement by Damascus to destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles – led to yet another shift in the military situation.

As for the overarching regime goal of severing the rebel supply lines that stretch from the Bekaa Valley town of Arsal into the Qalamoun region, the victory in Yabroud represents a huge achievement. But other key locations, namely the villages of Flita and Rankous, remain in rebel hands.

Locals say the idea of a total rupture of these supply lines remains an impossibility, due to the geography of the terrain and the manpower needed to police the area.

As one observer put it, “the supply lines will shift direction, but the routes will become much longer, for example, and more difficult to negotiate for the rebels.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 18, 2014, on page 8.




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