Michael Young/Qalamoun is a test of Hezbollah’s hopes

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Qalamoun is a test of Hezbollah’s hopes
Michael Young/The Daily Star/May. 08, 2015

 There were contradictory statements this week as to whether Hezbollah would proceed with an offensive in Qalamoun. An unidentified “security source” told this newspaper, “Hezbollah, after an in-depth military assessment, concluded that there was no need for a costly wide-scale offensive.” Often, a security source means someone from the military, meaning the statement was probably coordinated with the party. Yet the next day, Hezbollah’s media office released a statement by the deputy secretary-general, Sheikh Naim Qassem, in which he made the contrary claim.

“The Qalamoun battle is coming, and it has already stuck its neck out, proving once again that the takfiris are unable to expand as they wish,” Qassem was quoted as saying. “This battle is the battle of protecting Lebanese villages and prevents takfiris from expanding and achieving their goals.”In the evening, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah added to the uncertainty. In a speech he said, “We have not issued a statement, and we will not issue a statement. When we launch a [Qalamoun] operation, it will be obvious to everyone.”

Hezbollah is careful with its messaging, and an anonymous source sounds less credible than party leaders speaking on the record. But both Nasrallah and Qassem’s comments betrayed uneasiness. They know the delay in initiating a Qalamoun offensive has led to doubts about Hezbollah’s capacities.

An attack in Qalamoun had meaning in a very different military context in Syria. In March Iran organized major operations in Syria’s north and south, the main objective being to cut off rebel supply lines to Syria and Jordan. Both offensives failed ignominiously, and were followed by major rebel gains, so that resupply lines into Syria have now been secured.

The reversals completely altered the stakes for Hezbollah, and for the Syrian army whose role would be essential in a battle for Qalamoun. The party cannot take military action in the area without a guarantee of victory, since a further defeat in light of those in northern and southern Syria would be disastrous. Yet such a victory is far from assured, for several reasons. First, Qalamoun does not lend itself to unequivocal outcomes. It’s a vast, thankless region extremely difficult to control, which is why it was so appreciated by cross-border smugglers.

Second, Hezbollah’s ally in such a venture is a demoralized and depleted Syrian army, whose combat effectiveness has steadily deteriorated in recent years. Hezbollah has no confidence in the Syrians, and even less that they would prevent rebel reinforcements from other areas. Corruption is rampant in the Syrian ranks and as the tide turns in Syria this is bound to increase as units begin preparing for a future without Bashar Assad. Such hopelessness could facilitate rebel efforts to buy their way through Syrian lines to Qalamoun, possibly creating a situation where Hezbollah will send its men into a meat grinder.

We have quite possibly reached a new stage in Syria. The countries backing the opponents of Assad have unified their efforts, and it seems to be working. Their most likely strategy is to pursue and consolidate their battlefield gains and push Iran into accepting a compromise at the expense of Assad. This would presumably allow a managed transition away from his rule, in that way averting the chaos of Libya.

The United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura has seen a small opening. On Monday he began talks with a wide range of political actors from Syria and the region in an effort to relaunch negotiations and end the Syrian conflict. At this stage de Mistura’s objective will not be to achieve a breakthrough, but to prepare a forum that can facilitate negotiations in the future when or if the parties see a need for them.

As negotiations with Iran continue over a final nuclear accord, several officials have already suggested that those talks, if successful, could lead to Iran playing a role in finding a solution to the war in Syria. That supposition may be too optimistic by half. Iran is a house of many mansions, and it’s not at all evident that those inside the country who may lose from a nuclear accord, principally the Revolutionary Guard and their allies, would willingly go along with a process whose ultimate outcome is the removal of Bashar Assad.

Yet if Assad’s foes in Syria make more significant gains, then his allies in Tehran may not have much of a choice. That is why their natural instinct would be to claw back territory to improve Assad’s bargaining hand in the future. In that context a battle for Qalamoun takes on especial importance. But so too does the strategic necessity of getting Qalamoun right. That is why if an offensive doesn’t take place in the coming weeks, it is not because justification for it is lacking; it will be because Hezbollah and Syria’s army are unable to triumph decisively.

And if that’s the case then the limits of Iran and Hezbollah’s effectiveness in Syria will be visible, and therefore their ability to keep Assad in place will be reduced. But to admit this will be difficult for some in Iran, which is why Hezbollah will have a role in determining what decision Iran ultimately takes with regard to the Syrian conflict. The party cannot afford to so involve itself in Syria that it loses control in Lebanon, or, as Qassem insinuated, leaves Lebanon’s Shiites without suitable protection.

We are nearing decision time in Iran. A nuclear deal might loosen up funds to bolster Assad in Syria, but all that would do is delay his end, so decayed are the Syrian regime and army. Hezbollah must consider the risks of going down with Assad’s ship. What it does or does not do in Qalamoun will be an illustration of the frame of mind in the party’s leadership.

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