BEIRUT — Despite the reported falling out between radical rebels who belong to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other, more moderate rebel factions, the two sides are cooperating to resist a Syrian government effort to retake a strategic region along the Lebanese border known as the Qalamoun.
The Syrian government and its Lebanese allies from the Hezbollah militant group announced last November that they’d launched an operation to clear the mountainous Qalamoun – including the key rebel-held city of Yabroud – in order to take control of the country’s main highway and break a key rebel supply route that links rebel strongholds in central Syria with the pro-rebel Lebanese city of Arsal.
But progress has been slow, as hundreds of ISIS fighters, as well as a unit of radical fighters from Saudi Arabia, have bolstered the rebel forces, according to Syrian activists who maintain close contact with radical groups that are fighting to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad.
“Hezbollah has not been able to take Yabroud for many reasons,” said Abu Omar al Homsi, a Syrian activist who used a nom de guerre for his safety. He discussed what was taking place in Qalamoun before Lebanese authorities arrested him last week and charged him with being a member of al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front. “The first reason is that in Qalamoun, there is no (unrest) between rebel groups. There is a command center operated by (the Nusra Front), where all rebel units have a representative so we have good coordination for fighting.”
He said rebels had been digging in for months in the mountains of Qalamoun and were well prepared. He compared it to Tora Bora in Afghanistan, the cave complex from which Osama bin Laden escaped when U.S. forces thought they had him cornered in 2001.
“There are strong caves and bunkers all over the mountains,” he said.
The description of cooperation between ISIS and other rebel factions, including Nusra, is in stark contrast with the remainder of Syria, where ISIS has been battling other rebel groups that revolted against its harsh brand of Islam and its seizure of towns and villages that had been under the control of other rebel groups. Last week, Nusra gave ISIS a five-day deadline to submit to an Islamic court’s mediation after suspected ISIS suicide bombers killed a key rebel figure who was close to al Qaida leader Ayman Zawahiri. After that threat, ISIS pulled out of a key town in Aleppo province to consolidate its forces further east, and the deadline passed Saturday with no Nusra attacks.
Homsi said the ISIS fighters in Qalamoun “wanted to fight the regime,” in contrast to a key complaint about ISIS from other rebel groups: that it’s more interested in pursuing its agenda of establishing an Islamist state than in toppling Assad.
“This unit,” he said, referring to the ISIS fighters, “operates very well with other units and works closely with the ‘Green Battalion.’ ”
The Green Battalion was a group that formed last year around Saudi veterans of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq and operated in the Damascus suburbs before responding to an open call for defenders of the strategic Qalamoun corridor in November, according to activists and an analyst of jihadis.
“They have the same ideology as Nusra or ISIS,” said Aymenn al Tamimi, an expert on Syrian and Iraqi rebel groups. “They formed their own thing because they had personal problems with ISIS and Nusra and they didn’t want to take sides in the dispute.”
That independence also has allowed them to play a key role in mediating between those groups, which are engaged in open warfare in the rest of the country.
“The rebels here have no infighting, unlike what’s happening in the north,” said Tamimi.
“ISIS and the Saudis are not the largest group fighting,” said Homsi. “The top organization is Nusra, which runs the command center, and local fighters . . . as well as Lebanese fighters from Arsal and the north. But ISIS and the Green Battalion have fought very well and have made the defense of the area much easier.”
As a result, the operation to clear the area has dragged on throughout the winter amid unconfirmed reports of heavy Hezbollah casualties. A Hezbollah military commander with men fighting in the area refused to discuss specifics of the group’s losses but acknowledged that the rebel forces it’s facing are determined.
“The area is very mountainous and difficult to move around” in, he said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to reporters. “The fight has been tough because many foreign jihadis from (ISIS) have entered the area. These men fight to the death and are savages; they behead prisoners and don’t care if they die. So it takes time to kill them all.”
The Hezbollah official cited the presence of ISIS forces in Yabroud as partially responsible for the wave of car bombs that have targeted Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim community this winter.
“We know the car bombs are made in Yabroud and transported to Arsal before they are sent to Beirut,” he said. “This fight is to protect the Lebanese from these terrorists.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero