Michael Young/Border wars will determine Assad’s fate

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Border wars will determine Assad’s fate
Michael Young/The Daily/Apr. 23, 2015

In recent months there has been much talk of a Hezbollah offensive in the Qalamoun district of Syria. The expectation was that it would take place some time in spring. However, there have been so signs of when, or if, this will actually happen.

Last February Iran organized a pair of offensives in Syria – one in the north around Aleppo, the other in the south. This signaled a strategy of neutralizing Syria’s border areas and cutting off rebel supply lines from Turkey and Jordan. A Qalamoun operation was viewed as applying the same logic.

The problem is that Iran’s plans went haywire. In the north the hostilities west of Aleppo turned to the Iranians’ disadvantage, with heavy losses among those fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, particularly Afghan Shiites. Within a matter of weeks Bashar Assad’s enemies had counterattacked and captured Idlib, a significant reversal for the Syrian regime and Tehran.

In the south a similar pattern soon developed. An Iranian-led offensive also stalled. This was followed in subsequent weeks by the regime’s loss of Busra al-Sham, and after that the last regime-controlled border crossing with Jordan at Nassib.

In light of this, one wonders if Hezbollah’s calculations have not changed. While the failures in Syria’s north and south make urgent a successful campaign against the rebels, they also make it necessary for Hezbollah to avoid any setbacks. For Iran an indecisive campaign in Qalamoun, after the other recent losses, would be disastrous. It would create an impression that Iran and Hezbollah can be beaten, at a time when the Syrian regime is vulnerable and cannot readily mobilize military manpower.

This would be a valuable victory for Turkey and Jordan. By helping undermine Iran, Assad and their allies along the border, both have protected their stakes in Syria. They are unwilling to allow an expansion of Iranian influence up to their borders with Syria – an attitude shared by Israel, which has imposed a red line against Hezbollah and Iran operating on the Golan Heights.

However, Lebanon is a different matter. In recent months Hezbollah has carefully laid the groundwork for an attack in Qalamoun by pushing the Lebanese Army into a border interdiction effort. The Army, under the heading of “fighting terrorism,” has obliged, with the help of Western countries that have sent arms and participated in surveillance operations. That jihadi groups inside Qalamoun still hold Lebanese soldiers and policemen hostage has facilitated Hezbollah’s task of portraying the battles there as an effort to combat extremist groups.

Yet there appear to be limits to what the Army is prepared to do. The Syrians and Hezbollah have pushed for tighter coordination but the military command is not eager to be drawn into the Syrian conflict, and does want to be perceived as taking part in the Qalamoun campaign. It will try to limit its role to defensive duties: seizing the high ground, blocking access across the border and maintaining security among Syrian refugees, many of whom are related to the Qalamoun combatants.

Hezbollah and Iran, not to mention the Syrian armed forces, have their work cut out for them in Qalamoun. The area is large and very difficult to control. There is also much corruption among the Syrian forces. The possibility that rebel groups and their jihadi allies will be able to send reinforcements through Syrian lines cannot be ruled out.

Hezbollah is reportedly optimistic about its chances of defeating the rebels. Qalamoun is vital as it straddles communication lines between Damascus and the Syrian coast, and if the Assad regime is to reinforce itself that passage must be secured. But we’ve often heard party officials sound upbeat about the direction of the Syrian conflict, only to be blindsided by reality.

Worse, Hezbollah must know better than most the profound degradation of the Syrian Army and security forces, with which relations are particularly tense. There can be no illusions within the party about the ease of military action in Qalamoun.

Control of Syria’s borders is essential to preserving Bashar Assad’s regime. Until now that struggle is being lost by the regime and Iran. Only the Lebanese border provides some hope for them. And even then the rebels in Qalamoun are relatively isolated and surrounded, unlike those in the south and north, who have the space to expand their territorial control.

What happens in Qalamoun, or fails to happen, will give us an insight into what lies ahead in Syria. But one thing is evident: Assad’s future will be determined by developments along Syria’s frontiers. The regime has been unable to reverse the tide of losses along its boundaries. Iran is discovering that its regional foes can bleed it with a thousand pin pricks. It wants to be sure that a Qalamoun offensive will not add to the flow.

In my column of last week I mistakenly wrote that Al-Jadeed had revealed the personal details of witnesses in the trial before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Only Al-Akhbar did so. While one may question Al-Jadeed’s motives in highlighting the leaks surrounding the trial, my statement was incorrect.

**Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.