For Bashar Al Assad it is a potentially devastating trouble spot in Syria’s western corridor that he needs to control. For rebel forces, it is their most important asset, and their pathway into Damascus and other key regime strongholds.
Either way, the rugged and inhospitable Qalamoun mountains are now the most strategically important area in Syria. The short-term course of the conflict might well depend on whether or not the government can retake them.
Because of this, for months observers have been predicting a “Battle for Qalamoun”.
Earlier this week, government forces retook the town of Qara, one of the most important parts of Qalamoun from their point of view. It abuts the highway that leads directly to the southern outskirts of the capital Damascus.
The battle over Qara drew even more international attention for the refugee crisis it provoked, with 18,000 Syrians from the area fleeing over the Lebanese border into the town of Arsal over the past few weeks.
So, does the fall of Qara indicate that the “Battle for Qalamoun” has finally begun?
In one sense, it does, because this is the first major regime offensive in the area for some time.
The regime’s success in Qara could fuel more fighting in other parts of Qalamoun, a vast area near the Lebanese border.
On the other hand, it could be observed that the “Battle for Qalamoun” hasn’t begun in the conventional sense, because it never really ended. Fighting at some level has been continuous for more than a year and a half.
The fall of one important town hardly means the regime has retaken the region. Nor does the Qara offensive necessarily mean a broader battle is underway, unless it is intended to be a prolonged, slow and painstaking process of picking off bits of the territory piece by piece. Hizbollah, which is reported to have committed up to 15,000 fighters to the Qalamoun campaign, is said to favour such a piecemeal approach.
However, there are a number of key areas that would require a much greater level of force and probable regime losses than the relatively exposed town of Qara. Halbun, Hosh Arab, the Jubb’adin Hill, and Hared are all fundamental to controlling the territory. Moreover, we are already in late November, and the weather will probably combine with the terrain in favour of defensive guerrilla positions.
So the crucial contest for overall control of Qalamoun is unlikely to be fully joined in the coming months, even if the regime and Hizbollah are planning to retake it inch by inch.
Yet, retake it they must.
If they don’t, they will have to live with a powerful rebel stronghold in a key area that will always threaten to undermine their ability to secure the western corridor leading from the Lebanese border and the Bekaa Valley up to Damascus and far beyond. The stakes are just as high for the rebels. Without Qalamoun, they face being cut off from both Damascus and its surrounding areas, and from portions of Homs.
Without it too they cannot hope to pursue the war against the government in its own strongholds. They would find themselves stuck in what amount to areas the government would like to control, but can ultimately live without.
In brief, if the regime and Hizbollah are eventually able to retake control of Qalamoun in general and all of its strategic locations, the Syrian conflict, at least in its first phase, will produce a decisive victory for the government in all of the major areas it cannot afford to lose. For the rebels, it would be a hard-to-reverse disaster.
As with all things Syrian now, there is an added international dimension to what might otherwise be local battles over small areas.
The day after the fall of Qara, two suicide bombers attacked the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, killing the cultural attaché among many other people and, reportedly, narrowly missing the ambassador himself. That bombing also happened on the eve of renewed Iranian nuclear negotiations. The timing of the attack is unlikely to have been random.
The next day, a pro-Iranian Shiite militia in southern Iraq – sending a message that was, simultaneously, both clear and cryptic – fired at least six mortar rounds into uninhabited areas of Saudi Arabia.
Even if you consider all this as conspiratorial musings or as complete coincidences, it’s hard not to see the Syrian conflict intensifying the region’s sectarian divisions and bitter rivalries, at least as much as these regional divisions and rivalries fuel the fire in Syria.
Sectarian and ideological fault-lines are now running so deep in the Middle East that it’s no longer impossible to imagine rocket fire reverberating so loudly off the hills of Qalamoun that its echoes could heard across the Arab world.