Syria’s mountainous Qalamoun region has been a key supply route for the rebels battling to bring down the government of Bashar Al-Assad, allowing them to bring in reinforcements and supplies from Lebanon.
The traffic has also allegedly been two-way, with some of the bombs that have struck parts of Beirut associated with Hezbollah constructed in Syria’s Qalamoun region and smuggled across the border into Lebanon.
But now, with the fall of Rankous, the last rebel stronghold in Qalamoun, to Syrian government troops and their Hezbollah allies, observers are beginning to question if Assad will be able to cut the rebels off from neighboring Lebanon for good. On the Lebanese side of the border, national security forces are taking part in a massive show of force in Tripoli, Arsal, Labweh, the Bekaa Valley and elsewhere.
Rami Abdul Rahman, the head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the increased security on the Syrian side of the border would lead to greater security in neighboring Lebanon, which has been adversely impacted by the three-year-long uprising in Syria.
He added that Hezbollah is in the process of setting up fixed positions on the Syrian side of the border to strengthen the Assad regime’s presence in the area and prevent rebels from crossing into Lebanon. “They [the Syrian rebels] are now facing difficulties moving fighters [across the border], and they receive arms and aid across more than one Lebanese region.”
Retired Lebanese Army Brig. Gen. Amin Hoteit, an expert on Lebanese military and strategic affairs, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Lebanon has now been separated from the Syrian crisis. This comes after the rebels withdrew from Qalamoun, and before this Al-Qusayr, Homs and Al-Zarah.”
He said that the Syrian military is seeking to create a “buffer zone” along the Lebanese border, securing its presence in the region in order to “isolate Lebanon from the Syrian crisis.”
Lebanon is linked to Syria via five legal crossings, along with approximately 18 illegal crossing points and 15 difficult-to-traverse tertiary crossing points. Pro-Assad forces are reportedly in control of the majority of these crossing points, with opposition fighters able to cross mainly via three mountainous passageways that vehicles cannot navigate.
Hoteit felt that, with the Lebanese–Syrian border effectively closed, Lebanon would be able to stabilize its domestic security situation. He predicted an 80 to 90 percent reduction in the number of car bombs and suicide attacks in Lebanon following the Assad regime’s advance.
Lebanon has been subject to increasing sectarian violence over the past months, including suicide attacks, with ties to the conflict across the border. Lebanon’s Sunnis, particularly those in the border region, are broadly supportive of the Syrian rebels, while Lebanon’s Hezbollah is fighting alongside the Assad regime. There have been escalating sectarian clashes in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, between Sunni and Shi’ite communities and the central government has increased its operations in the area to restore order.
“The security plan that is being implemented in more than one region of Lebanon is a direct expansion of the success of the Syrian regime in tightening its control of the border region,” Hoteit said.
But not everyone is quite so optimistic. Riad Kahwaji, the director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), said that while Syria’s control of the border region will harm the Syrian rebels, the conflict across the border would continue to affect Lebanon.
“So long as the fighting and crisis is ongoing in Syria, Lebanon will inevitably be influenced to a large extent by what is happening to its neighbor, even if Hezbollah and the Syrian regime succeed in completely controlling the border region,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Kahwaji, a Middle East defense expert, played down Syrian government forces’ ability to completely control the border region owing to Qalamoun’s mountainous topography. “The infiltrations and ambushes will continue and this could even lead to sporadic shelling on specific targets in the Bekaa Valley.”
He added that any decline in terrorism in Lebanon would only be temporary, particularly if the border region is re-opened, but this time in favor of the Assad regime.
“The negative repercussions of Hezbollah’s participation in the fighting on the side of the regime will continue and this is something that could destabilize the fragile stability that the country is currently witnessing particularly as the terrorists will adjust and find new ways to hit the Lebanese interior,” he said.