By George Friedman, Stratfor.com - Tuesday, November 19, 2013
The long anticipated Qalamoun offensive is believed to have begun, with forces loyal to Bashar al Assad making a decisive move on the strategic town of Qara. A withering artillery bombardment commenced Nov. 16 and was followed by a coordinated tank and infantry attack. Although Qara remains in rebel hands for now, loyalist forces hold a dominant position around the town.
The mountainous Qalamoun region, bordering Lebanon and overlooking the critical M5 highway, remains highly problematic for the regime as it attempts to sustain a continuous and secure supply line from Damascus to the north. With a steady buildup of rebel forces in the area, rumors have persisted for months that the regime, with massive Hezbollah involvement, would launch a new offensive to drive back opposition in the area, potentially causing the largest spillover of violence into Lebanon since the start of the Syrian civil war.
The Qalamoun operation is not the only offensive in which the regime is currently engaged. In previous weeks, loyalist forces have tried to open a path to Aleppo city and have concentrated their efforts to retake a number of suburbs south of Damascus. The rebels have been plagued by serious infighting and distracted by an ultimately wasteful fight against Kurdish forces in the northeast. They have also been short of weapons and ammunition as Turkey has clamped down on the shared border in its efforts to quell the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant jihadist group (also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Sham). As a result, the rebels have been unable to adequately marshal their forces to meet the new loyalist onslaught.
Meanwhile, the regime has greatly benefited from an influx of aid from Iran, Russia and Shiite militias in Lebanon and Iraq. This aid has greatly bolstered regime forces, which effectively reversed several rebel gains earlier this year. Iran has been a considerable provider of lines of credit, training and weaponry. Russia has continued to be a critical source of arms and diplomatic cover and Shiite fighters from Iraq and Lebanon have streamed into Syria, just as thousands of Sunni fighters have joined the rebel side.
Hezbollah is poised to play its biggest role yet in the Syrian civil war, with thousands of fighters allegedly being mobilized for the Qalamoun offensive. The southern, western and northern sectors of the battlefront have reportedly been assigned to Hezbollah operational control. On Nov. 14, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah pledged that his group's fighters are committed to the battle in Syria.
As the regime command launches a number of offensives across Syria, the rebels find themselves under mounting pressure. Rebel-held Aleppo has not faced a threat of this significance since the regime counteroffensive against the city in mid-2012. As recently as Aug. 2013, rebels seized Khanassir in Aleppo province, encircling regime forces. The fact that the regime has been able to punch through rebel lines and reach Aleppo in a matter of weeks not only shows that they have been revived, but also indicates serious fractures in the unity of the rebels and their ability to consolidate or even maintain their position.
Despite a succession of loyalist victories over the previous month, it is important to note that the rebels are not out of the fight. They continue to score important victories over the regime, such as the capture of Tafas, Daraa province, in late October. They also overran one of the largest arms depots in Syria last week near Mahin in Homs province. For the rebels to have any chance of placing the regime on the back foot, however, they would have to stop fighting with one another. Continued fracturing and infighting among rebel units will distract from the primary fight, leading to more battlefield setbacks and, if left unchecked, possibly undoing the rebellion in the long term.
Posted by George Friedman, Stratfor.com at 9:33 AM