Lebanon opens borders as Syria’s war intensifies

Thousands of refugees are continuing to stream into the Lebanese border town of Arsal as clashes intensify in the nearby Qalamoun mountains ahead of what many observers believe will be a defining battle in the Syrian civil war.

United Nations officials in Lebanon say more than 12 000 refugees have arrived in Arsal in the past four days, the highest influx into the Sunni Muslim town at any point in the past 32 months. New arrivals say thousands more are making the journey from the towns and villages that dot the Qalamoun range between the Lebanese border and the Syrian capital, Damascus.

The area has been a supply line for insurgents and the communities supporting them. The Syrian regime has long sought control of its rugged hills and plunging valleys so it can clear a path between Damascus and the country's third city, Homs, about 80km to the northwest.

Regime control of the area would imperil opposition supply lines to districts on the outskirts of the capital that still remain under rebel control. It would also consolidate the gains made by Hezbollah in May, when the Lebanese Shi'ite militia, supported by regime artillery, overran the Syrian town of Qusair, clearing rebels from a vital corner of Syria's sectarian mosaic.

Rebel groups have called for reinforcements to travel to Qalamoun, just as they have on the outskirts of Aleppo in the north, another part of the country in which government forces and their allies are inching forward.

Following the death of Abdulkader al-Saleh – also known as Haji Marah – the leader of Liwa al-Tawheed, the largest rebel group in Aleppo, regime forces, backed by an Iraqi militia, are slowly advancing around the rebel-held east of the capital, which is defended by a mix of mainstream opposition groups and foreign jihadis linked to al-Qaeda.

While not committing large numbers of its forces to Qalamoun, Hezbollah has made little secret of the fact that it will take a lead role in the looming battle. Its fighters are more accustomed than the Syrian army to warfare in such difficult terrain after years of training in the mountains of southern Lebanon to face a more traditional foe, Israel.

“The regime will try to isolate the rebels in the mountains now that winter is coming,” said the leader of Lebanon's Druze sect, Walid Jumblatt.

It is a strategic area that links Damascus to Homs, and in this area there are ammunition stores that are vital to the regime. Most of them are west of the Damascus-Homs road.

As well as being a key supply route for arms and humanitarian aid, the roads through Qalamoun are also likely to be used to move the chemical weapons surrendered by Bashar al-Assad to a coastal port. – © Guardian News & Media 2013

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