By Tareq al Abd for Assafir – Translated by Zachary Cuyler for Al-monitor –
With the declaration of the State of Greater Lebanon under the French Mandate era, the borders between Syria and the land of the cedars began to form. They sometimes divide adjacent villages as they extend from the occupied Golan Heights to the seashore, and pass through the Qalamoun and Anti-Lebanon mountains. Eventually, the borders themselves became a battleground in the Syrian conflict, which reverberates in neighboring states.
There are four Syrian provinces along the Syrian-Lebanese border. They include Quneitra, Rif Dimashq, which has the largest share of the border with Lebanon, Homs, and Tartus. While Tartus enjoys total calm and the situation in Homs is comparable, the situation in the Golan and Rif Dimashq is different: Armed groups have deployed along the border strip and work to secure transportation routes for fighters, ammunition and weapons from the Lebanese side of the border. This raises questions today, given the prevalence of the idea of “safe zones” and the opposition Syrian National Coalition’s focus on the Qalamoun area near the Lebanese border. These issues necessitate detailed research on the borderlands between the two countries.
Golan and the rugged road
The triangle between the Lebanese-Syrian border and the occupied territories begins at Shebaa Farms and the neighboring town of al-Nakhila, where Mount Hermon sits. Dozens of rugged mountain routes extend up this mountain’s slopes. Some of these paths have become transportation routes between the two countries, especially following the takeover of parts of the province’s countryside by armed groups.
There is a chain of towns and villages along the border that begins with Hadar, which is under the control of the Syrian state. The chain continues through Beit Jan and Mazra’ah Beit Jan, which are three kilometers apart and are under the control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Jabhat al-Nusra. Syrian forces are present in the villages of Farhour, Beit Tima, and Qala’at Jandal. State control extends northward to the villages and towns of Ain Shaara, Heinah, and ‘Arnah, and reaches the Lebanese side of the border. In the neighboring Lebanese provinces of Nabatiyeh and Bekaa, there are smuggling routes under the control of the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah.
Perhaps the most important point in the Golan region is the Beit Jan-Shebaa Farms front. These two towns are no more than 16 kilometers (10 miles) apart, and shepherds and even mule-drivers cross the hillside paths to Shebaa Farms from Beit Jan — which is under the control of militants. According to local sources, the trip from the Syrian side of the border to Lebanon takes eight hours, though it is more time consuming during the winter. The Lebanese side of the border is under the control of the Lebanese Army, which is supported by United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon peacekeepers. These forces have recently prevented the transportation of wounded fighters and the smuggling of weapons through these routes. In this area, the Lebanese side of the border extends from Shebaa Farms to Rashaya, Hasbaya, and Arqoub.
In western Rif Dimashq, fighters are encircled
There are no clear borders that divide the border areas of Rif Dimashq from one another. The mountainous region extends from Wadi Barda to Qalamoun, and is made up of a mountain range. This has allowed fighters to pass through the area’s hillside paths, especially in the aftermath of the battles for Qalamoun.
The Western countryside of Damascus extends from the town of Rikhla Birqis and Deir El Aachayer, which face the Lebanese villages of Ayn al-Arab [Kobani] and Kaferkouk in anti-Lebanon mountains. The string of towns continues to the north with Maysaloun and Jdeidat Yabous, which are adjacent to the official border crossing. On the Lebanese side of the border, there are the industrial areas Sultan Yaaqoub and Majdal Anjar.
The chain of Syrian towns continues with Dimas, Baloudan, Zabadani, Madaya, and Serghaya, which are the last points along the western countryside. These towns are opposite Ma’baroun and Riyaq on the Lebanese side of the border. They are under the control of the Syrian army with the exception of Zabadani, where FSA, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jabhat al-Nusra units are concentrated. Meanwhile, there are repeated warnings that a group of al-Nusra and FSA fighters are pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), whose territory extends toward Madaya.
The military situation in this area differs from the rest of the region. Though FSA, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jabhat al-Nusra fighters control Zabadani, the town is nearly encircled. The Lebanese army and Hezbollah are concentrated along the entire Lebanese side of the border, and there are also bases belonging to the regime-aligned Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command in the area.
On the Syrian side of the border, there are Syrian military bases in Dimas and Baloudan, and there is Syrian army artillery on the mountains surrounding Zabadani. As for the neighboring town of Madaya, though militants control the town, there is a truce in effect that resembles other such agreements in a number of areas in the Damascus countryside. Madaya remains the only route for the militants, some of whom previously advanced toward Yabrud but returned to Madaya after the Syrian army recovered bases in the Qalamoun mountains.
Qalamoun: Inconclusive battles
The military situation is different in the Qalamoun area, which extends from Rankous to Qarah. The region extends from the towns of Housh Arab, Mamourah, Jibah, Sarkhah, Asal al-Ward, Ras al-Marah, Fleitah, Yabrud to Qarah. All of these towns are under the control of Syrian forces, and the Lebanese army and Hezbollah control the opposite side of the border. This is especially true now that Arsal is isolated from its surrounding hills, where Jabhat al-Nusra, IS, and FSA groups are located. Syrian planes and artillery target these armed groups when they attempt to move between the hillsides on the Syrian and Lebanese sides of the border.