BEIRUT — A long-expected Syrian government offensive to capture a key rebel-held region along the border with Lebanon appeared Sunday to have begun, driving thousands of Syrians across the border to seek refugee in the Lebanese town of Arsal.
International aid officials told McClatchy that what began as a trickle of refugees on Friday became a flood Sunday as as many as 20,000 people fled across the border ahead of a Syrian government offensive to seize control of the strategic Qalamoun region, which straddles the Anti-Lebanon mountains that form the border between the two countries.
The area links the rebel-friendly Arsal with the Damascus suburbs and has long provided the rebels with a critical supply route to units besieging the capital.
“There’s been heavy shelling throughout our positions in Qalamoun from regime bases along the highway,” said Abu Omar, a rebel activist speaking from Arsal, which acts as a supply base and safe haven for many rebel units in eastern Syria. “Families fear the regime is coming for the area and are fleeing to Lebanon.”
Arsal residents reached by phone confirmed that there had been a surge of refugees arriving in the city, which has a nominal population of 50,000 but whose size has nearly doubled from previous waves of Syrian asylum seekers.
Lebanon already hosts nearly a million Syrian refugees from the nearly three-year-old civil war. A government offensive into the Qalamoun region promises to send even more as the tough winter weather makes ordinary life in a war zone even more difficult.
“This is the most strategic battle of the war,” said Abu Omar about the importance of the fight. “[The rebels] have more than 25,000 men dug into fortifications to hold this area. If it is lost then we will be cut off from the rest of Syria.”
“The war might be over [if Qalamoun is lost],” he added.
The offensive – which had been long rumored but had yet to materialize before the area’s harsh winter weather – comes as the Syrian government has recaptured a number of strategic positions held by the rebels, including key suburbs south and west of Damascus as well as the important crossroads hub of Qusayr, which fell at the beginning of the summer. Rebels credit the government’s success to the presence among troops loyal to President Bashar Assad of fighters from Hezbollah, Iraq and Iran, who the rebels describe as being better disciplined than the Syrian military.
A Hezbollah unit commander whose men have been deployed to Syria twice in the last year said that he agrees the presence of the foreign troops had made the difference in the war.
“When we first started helping the Syrians, it was true they had big problems with their army,” said the commander, who asked to remain nameless because he was not authorized to discuss Hezbollah’s activities in Syria. “They had no skill, no discipline and no leadership. Now, the men they have left have learned a lot and are very serious fighters. They’ve become more like Hezbollah.”
The commander confirmed that Hezbollah would take part in the fighting for Qalamoun but said for now their presence would be limited to Special Forces type units and preventing rebels from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front from entering Lebanon – one of the primary rationales Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has outlined for his organization’s commitment to defending the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“We have special forces who have been training for mountain fighting,” the commander said. “These will be in Qalamoun. And Hezbollah will have units to keep terrorists from al Qaida and Nusra out of Lebanon by blocking the mountains inside Lebanon.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero