On Sunday, a day after the three-year anniversary of the start of the Syrian uprising, Assad regime forces and Hezbollah units reclaimed most parts of the rebel-held Syrian town of Yabroud. The religiously mixed town was once a major rebel holdout in the Qalamoun hills on the eastern border of Lebanon.
The campaign to secure the Qalamoun hills has been a priority for Hezbollah since the battle of Qusayr last summer. The campaign began late last fall and intensified as regime forces, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shiite militias began systematically seizing towns north of Yabroud.
Now that Yabroud has fallen, the Assad regime’s forces can be expected to continue their drive southward to the towns of Flita, Rankous, and Zabadani. The goal is to solidify control over the western part of the country, where the regime is strongest, and to secure the major highway from Damascus to Homs, thereby buttressing the capital and cutting off rebel supply lines from Lebanon.
The next immediate target for Assad and Hezbollah, however, may be the Lebanese town of Arsal in the northern Bekaa Valley. It has been in the crosshairs of the regime and Hezbollah for more than a year. Assad’s air force regularly strafes the town, while Hezbollah propaganda describes it as major conduit for the Salafi Jihadi factions that have attacked the Shiite group's areas in Lebanon.
Hezbollah has enlisted the help of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in the battle for Arsal. This is part of Hezbollah’s designs for the newly formed “national unity” government, whose priority is to combat “terrorism” – mostly directed at Hezbollah and Iranian targets. The goal is to prevent the car bombings and rocket attacks that have skyrocketed in recent months as Sunni elements exact revenge against Hezbollah for its involvement in the Syrian civil war. Indeed, as Hezbollah supporters celebrated the fall of Yabroud, a car bomb struck in the Bekaa Valley town of Nabi Othman, killing four, including two Hezbollah members. There have been nine attacks of this kind in Hezbollah-controlled territory since July 2013.
Finally, in securing control of Yabroud and its environs, Hezbollah has effectively established two adjoining Iranian enclaves on the eastern Mediterranean, securing a critical Iranian logistical route to transfer advanced weapons systems that will place Israel in immediate danger. In other words, the fall of Yabroud could portend heightened conflict between the Shiite militia and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), adding a new element of complexity to an already chaotic war.
Tony Badran is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.