TALIA, Lebanon — Hezbollah has for the past three years deployed troops as far afield as the Syrian cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Deraa to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Now, as the region’s harsh winter draws to a close, the Lebanese Shia militia is making final preparations for a major offensive against Sunni armed groups dug into a barren mountain range spanning Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria.
The focal point of the coming offensive will be Qalamoun, an area of mixed Christian and Sunni villages and towns set amid towering limestone mountains to the north of Damascus along the border. Hezbollah fighters are expecting a tough fight in mountainous terrain where units of Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front, Syria’s Al-Qaeda franchise) and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have survived the winter in caves, isolated farmsteads and positions fortified using bulldozers stolen from nearby Lebanese villages.
"They are very well trained,” said Abu Ali, a veteran Hezbollah fighter who has served multiple tours in Syria. “Most of them are foreigners and they have fought in places like Somalia and Iraq where they gained experience."
Hezbollah reinforcements, ammunition and artillery weapons have poured in to the eastern Bekaa Valley for the attack, which is expected to begin within the next month, while its reconnaissance drones patrol the skies, locating and monitoring enemy positions and movements.
Unlike Hezbollah’s previous Qalamoun offensive, this time its commanders say the goal is to eliminate the adversaries rather than simply force them to retreat.
“We are making preparations to surround them in the mountains then go after them,” Abu Ali said. “No one is leaving alive. There will be no deals. Our people have made the decision to wipe them out completely."
A November 2013 campaign in the same area saw Hezbollah spearhead an assault that regained control towns and villages whose capture by rebel forces had threatened to cut off the M5 highway linking Damascus to the Mediterranean coast. Hezbollah, backed by Syrian troops, airpower and artillery, surrounded, besieged and bombed each town in succession but usually left open an escape route along which the Sunni fighters could withdraw, allowing both sides to avoid street-to-street fighting which could have incurred heavy casualties. By mid-April of 2014, Qalamoun was back in the hands of the Syrian regime, but many of the Sunni fighters had simply retreated and are now dug into the mountains straddling the Lebanon-Syria border.
Estimates of the number of anti-Assad fighters along the border vary, but Lebanese army officers assess that there are some 3,000, most of them affiliated with ISIL and Jabhat Al-Nusra.
Sporadic clashes have continued since last summer, mainly ambushes and mortar and rocket fire. Last week Jabhat Al-Nusra claimed to have killed 12 Hezbollah fighters in a missile attack in Qalamoun. And the movement and its supporters expect an escalation as they prepare to go on the offensive.
Last week the emir of Jabhat Al-Nusra in the Qalamoun area, Abu Malek al-Shami, warned that his group would soon attack “the Iranian party’s strongholds” in Lebanon, a reference to Hezbollah.
Predominantly Shia areas of Lebanon were buffeted by a series of suicide bombings from late 2013 until June last year. Although enhanced security measures by Lebanon’s intelligence agencies and Hezbollah’s internal security apparatus have rolled up a number of cells and foiled further attacks, a resumption of the bombings is widely feared.
As a result, Hezbollah is beefing up preparations to guard the home front. “We are at full readiness and unafraid,” chuckled Abu Meiss, the leader of a group of Shia paramilitary fighters in an eastern Bekaa village, all of them veterans of Lebanon’s 1975–90 civil war. “You can consider us rent-a-martyrs right now.”
Abu Meiss and his men are being deployed in the rear to defend positions and protecting their villages from any reprisals while Hezbollah’s main force advances deeper into the mountains. Sitting in the garden of a farmhouse near Talia, his clansmen check over their weapons — an assortment of AK-47 assault rifles, a belt-fed machine gun and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
“We expect that when the offensive begins they [Nusra, ISIL and allied groups] will mobilize their cells to cause problems for the Lebanese army and Hezbollah here in Lebanon,” says one of the fighters who identified himself as Haj Mohammed.
Lebanon’s Interior Minister Nohad Mashnouq visits Washington this week to meet with top officials from the FBI, Pentagon and State Department seeking to enhance intelligence sharing, according to Lebanese political sources familiar with the trip. The Lebanese side is seeking access to satellite imagery and biometric scanning equipment for border control, the sources said, in return for which Lebanon would offer the U.S. intelligence on radical groups gleaned from arrests and human sources.
Preparing for the offensive in the deep snow and freezing conditions has taken its toll on the fighters. “I spent 36 hours lying in wait in an ambush and it was so cold that the belt of my PKC [machine gun] froze,” said Hezbollah fighter Abu Ali.
As Hezbollah gears up to attack, there is a concern in Lebanon that the movement’s enemies may pre-empt the offensive by charging into the northern Bekaa and seizing a Lebanese village. Last August, some 700 fighters overran the Sunni town of Arsal, but after several days of fighting with the Lebanese army they retreated to the mountains — with large quantities of looted weapons and ammunition, and more than 30 soldiers and policemen as hostages. Four of the hostages have been executed by their captors, while several have been released. The fate of the remaining 25 hangs in the balance.
The Lebanese army, which has significantly strengthened its forces deployed along the border to repel attacks by the Sunni forces targeted by Hezbollah. The Lebanese army is not expected to Hezbollah’s assault, but there is likely to be some level of tacit coordination with the Iran-backed movement given the proximity of their forces.
“We anticipate everything and we are talking all precautions.” said Gen. Jean Kahwagi, the commander of the Lebanese army, on Friday.
All sides, then, appear to bracing themselves for a bloody spring along the Lebanon-Syria border.