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Sep 28, 2012 | 10:31 GMT

4 mins read

Syrians Vie for Mountains as Combat Spills Over to Lebanon

Syrians Vie for Mountains as Lebanon Combats Spillover

The Lebanese army announced Sept. 22 that a Syrian rebel unit had attacked a Lebanese army post in the Bekaa Valley town of Arsal. The attack caused no casualties, but the Lebanese army rushed reinforcements in to secure the area and pursue the gunmen. The Lebanese army has moved tentatively to secure the Lebanese-Syrian border, but because of its multidenominational composition, the army is wary of getting too involved on either side of the Syrian conflict.

Lebanon rapidly is becoming an important battleground linked to the conflict in Syria. Because of the importance of the passes across the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, Syrian rebels and the Syrian regime will both continue to attempt to gain control of the mountain range. 

Syrian rebels depend on supply lines running from Lebanon into Syria, particularly from Arsal into the Homs governorate and from Deir al-Ashaer into Rif Damascus. However, these supply lines are vulnerable.

The Syrian regime uses frequent cross-border shelling and raids to disrupt the supply lines, as it did Sept. 17 when two Syrian Arab Air Force warplanes fired missiles into Lebanon, striking the outskirts of Arsal. The Lebanese army also interferes with rebel supply lines; on Sept. 24, Lebanese forces seized a truck loaded with military equipment, such as hand grenades and communication devices. The truck was seized near the al-Qaa border crossing and was very likely being driven by rebel sympathizers.

Map - Syria-Lebanon

It is important to remember that the machinery of the Lebanese state is in a precarious situation, because some factions within the Lebanese government and military support Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime, and some support the Syrian rebels. The Lebanese military, therefore, is hesitant to get fully involved in the crisis and is focusing more on mitigating the spillover.

Hezbollah is also concerned about the current fighting in Syria and the potential for it to spread into Lebanon. The Syrian regime is one of Hezbollah's major suppliers, and the Lebanese group has benefited greatly from Syria's role as a transit route for weaponry and equipment from Iran. Hezbollah would like to maintain these supply lines and is offering at least token support to the regime, but the group is also wary of the ramifications of deep involvement on the side of the Syrian regime, especially given the regime's tenuous position.

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Meanwhile, heavy fighting continues on the Syrian side of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. The rebels have taken over al Qusayr near Homs and have expanded their control around the town. Rebel forces also continue fighting the regime in the vicinity of Zabadani and Madaya and have faced consistent shelling from regime artillery positions. Zabadani is a particularly important town; it is the headquarters of the Syrian 2nd Corps and reportedly serves as a logistics hub for supplying Hezbollah.

Seeking to improve their position on the border, the Syrian rebels have intensified their operations. A Stratfor source has said the rebels are trying to expand their operational space by occupying a key observation post on a mountain peak in Arsal overlooking the Syrian towns of Rankus, Assal al-Ward and Zabadani. The rebels also are trying to secure Judaydat Yabus, the most important border crossing between Syria and Lebanon. The crossing is on Highway 1 and is only some 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Damascus. The Stratfor source has indicated that fighters from the Sunni al-Mustaqbal militia and scores of militants from several pan-Islamic groups in Lebanon are poised to push into Syria through the Judaydat Yabus crossing if the rebels gain control of it.

All of this illustrates the two sides' larger strategic concerns. Syrian regime forces are using the terrain and their more robust firepower to great advantage to stem the flow of supplies for rebel forces in and around Damascus. Observation posts can be used to call for fire on suspected rebel forces and suspected supply shipments in the area. This tactic effectively blocks rebel logistics. It is in the rebels' interest to eliminate regime observation posts to reduce the effectiveness of airstrikes and indirect fire. This would, in turn, make it easier to dislodge unsupported regime forces from the Highway 1 valley. If the rebel forces could accomplish this, much more secure supply lines could substantially increase the volume of resources at the rebels' disposal.

If the Syrian rebels can drive regime forces from the mountains on the Syrian-Lebanese border, they would be able to threaten major regime supply lines running parallel to the border and would be in a better position to affect the ongoing battle in Damascus. Sunni fighters and supplies streaming into Syria from Lebanon could significantly bolster rebel efforts in both Damascus and the Orontes River Valley. The regime could be forced to redirect many of its forces currently fighting in the north and east to Damascus if the capital is threatened. This would reduce the pressure on the rebels in numerous fronts.

Lebanon therefore remains a key battleground for Syria's ongoing conflict. Both regime and rebel forces will continue allocating significant resources to secure their positions in the country. 

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