Conspiracy Chronicles, Hezbollah, Lebanon, Syria

Al-Qusayr: Salafist Emirate or Frontier of the Future Alawite State?

Jeffrey Goldberg's map of "the New Middle East" from a few years back (including an anticipated Alawite state).

Jeffrey Goldberg’s map of “the New Middle East” from a few years back (including an anticipated Alawite state).

What exactly is happening in al-Qusayr? I have no idea, but I’m going to tell you what I think anyway, seeing as how the biggest beneficiaries of the media blackout on Syria are the bloggers, tweeters, and other distant readers whose impressionistic musings are based almost entirely on a process of triangulating between other second-hand narratives.

Let’s begin with this report in al-Akhbar, which claims that the Syrian Army and Hizbullah’s attempt to retake al-Qusayr from the Free Syrian Army is meant to prevent the establishment of a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim stronghold on the border of Lebanon and an international war:

Retaking the city would also put an end to the possibility of setting up a hardline Salafi emirate in Qusayr, which would have served as a thorn in the side of Hezbollah and the Shia Lebanese villages of the Hermel region, and could have easily led to a full-fledged sectarian war on both sides of the border.

A Salafist emirate, you say? That sounds scary. No wonder Hezbollah has rushed to the defense of the beleaguered residents of this territory. Taking a page from the Lebanese Army’s playbook on Nahr al-Bared (which was a splendid success for that organization on all accounts), Hezbollah is obviously trying to address the cancer of Salafist extremism before it metastasizes.

But wait! This piece by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker contains the following nugget by an unnamed Washington official, about the real significance of the Homs region (which contains al-Qusayr):

According to the most common prediction of the war’s eventual end, Assad will lead Syria’s Alawites to an enclave on the Mediterranean coast, which includes the major ports of Latakia and Tartous, where the Alawites predominate. American officials say that Assad is trying to lay the groundwork. The regime has ethnically cleansed several Sunni-majority villages on routes that lead to the coast. And, according to the American intelligence official, the regime appears to be stockpiling weapons and supplies in the area. Perhaps most suggestive is the tenacity with which it has held on to the city of Homs, which lies on the highway between Damascus and the coast. Homs would give an Alawite rump state unimpeded access to Hezbollah, and to Iran. “Homs is the key,’’ the official said. “If they can hold it, then they can have the Alawite enclave on the coast that’s linked to Hezbollah and backed by the Iranians, and the Russian ships could still come into the port.”

So, what is al-Qusayr (besides the probable site of the Battle of Kadesh, between Ramesses II and Muwatalli II in 1274 BCE)? Is Hezbollah losing fighters to prevent the creation of a “Salafist emirate” or to lay the groundwork for an Alawite enclave on the Mediterranean coast?

Your guess is as good as mine. Seriously.


27 thoughts on “Al-Qusayr: Salafist Emirate or Frontier of the Future Alawite State?

  1. Reblogged this on YALLA SOURIYA.

    Posted by #yallasouriya | May 23, 2013, 5:59 pm
  2. And if you think that either Dexter Filkins or the US officials whom he quotes here have any clue what is happening in Qusayr or elsewhere in Syria, then I have a fine piece of beach-front property in New Jersey I’d like to sell you… C’meon, Qifa! These officials are the same people who assured us with great confidence back in 2011 that the Asad regime wouldn’t last till 2012; and then in 2012 assured it wouldn’t last till 2013; etc…

    Posted by Helena Cobban | May 23, 2013, 6:05 pm
  3. Ya Elias, that Akhbar article is a problematic one to use to condemn the “impressionistic musings” of distant observers over firsthand reporting — it says it is a dispatch from Qusayr. In any case, I found it analytically useful, as it is obviously an account hostile to the opposition that nevertheless reports the Qusayr battle could take another week. That’s in stark contrast to some of the early regime propaganda about what was taking place.

    There’s a broader discussion to be had on the merits of firsthand reporting vs. bloggers, tweeters, and others who rely on Web-based sources. Obviously, when gathering information, it’s foolish to turn this into an either-or equation. Journalists on the ground can be hampered by deeply skewed perspectives, and mere tweeters can turn out to have nuanced and informed views about what is going on in the world. So it goes.

    Posted by David Kenner | May 23, 2013, 6:21 pm
  4. i’m only a dog, but, as implied by Kenner, why can’t it be both?

    Posted by samadamsthedog | May 23, 2013, 6:34 pm
  5. The battle for Syria will still be going on 5-10 years from now. Remember, you heard it here!

    Posted by Baba | May 23, 2013, 7:06 pm
  6. Helena, that was my point (not about Dexter, but rather the Washington official.)

    David, the Akhbar report is not an impressionistic musing, but rather one of the secondary narratives that I (the distant observer) am trying to triangulate with. And yes, I agree with you about everything else you said.

    I suppose the question remains: what is actually happening in al-Qusayr? This is not an impulse buy for Hizbullah. This has to be the result of very careful calculations or else very heavy pressure from Iran. Is Qusayr so valuable a staging ground or weapons trafficking node for the opposition that HA would risk dozens of fighters for it? Is the regime trying to ethnically cleanse the road to the sea?

    I don’t know the answer to these questions. And that annoys me.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | May 23, 2013, 7:55 pm
  7. QN,

    Let’s say Assad gets his mini state, a Damascus-Homs corridor + the coastal region. What exactly are the Iranians gaining from that except a big headache? Without the oil, that state is bankrupt from day one let alone the sanctions and the fact that the rich Sunnis for the most part are not going to stay and live there. It is going to be a huge burden for Iran with no clear benefit. That state is going to be fighting Sunni Arabs, not Israel. No, what the Iranians and Assad are playing for is what Alex wants. They want a negotiated solution in which they get something like the French model, a president responsible for foreign affairs and the army, and a PM and government responsible for internal matters. The president of course they envision is Assad. That way they keep Syria intact and maintain its “resistance” foreign policy. If the West agrees to this, they also get rid of the sanctions and Syrian isolation.

    What they are doing is trying to bolster their negotiating position in order to achieve this goal. They are hoping that just like the West and the Gulf Arabs finally got fed up with the Lebanese civil war and allowed Hafez to take over Lebanon, the same will happen with Syria. They think that the West will cave in as it sees the casualties and refugees mount and accept their position.

    Why is Hezbollah fighting in Qusayr then? To prove to the West that Iran and its proxies are 100% behind Assad and that they can make the war drag on forever. Qusayr is a good place for Hezbollah to fight since their supply lines are very short and secure.

    Naturally, the “resistance” is miscalculating badly and using the wrong model. The way the US is going to approach this is the same way it approached the Iran-Iraq war. As Kerry said, any Assad gain is going to be “temporary” because the US will provide the rebels, directly or indirectly with weapons to even things out, but of course not enough weapons to win. After all, what is wrong with making Iran, Hezbollah, Assad and the Islamists bleed for a decade or so? Except of course that it is at the expense of the Syrian people but unfortunately like the Iranians and Iraqis in the Iran-Iraq war, they don’t count for very much.

    So basically both sides are playing chicken but with the Syrian people suffering if no one gives. Assad is going to lose this game of chicken because his support base is also bleeding and quite badly as the war goes on and there are strong Western and Arab interests to curb Iranian influence. Dealing with ruthless assholes is always a pain and the Assads are as ruthless as they come.

    Posted by AIG | May 24, 2013, 12:23 am
  8. QN – Forget about reality for a moment, what does Qusair contribute in the battle of narratives between the regime’s vs the revolution’s?

    The elements are crucial – you have Sectarianism, Civil War, Fragmentation and Partition, Al-Qaeda, JAN, Spillover, Chaos etc… ; in addition the run up to the battle saw Nasrallah threatening Israel and declaring the Jawlan as a battlefield while openly announcing his participation in the battle; all of which are elements that re-enforce the pro-regime narrative. You also have overt and active support to the regime from Russia, Iran and Hizballah while the lack of real support to the opposition is even more flagrant. If the battle of Qusair also serves as a diversion from the battle of Damascus, a trap to exhaust the rebels without the need for a victory on either side, then the benefits become even more apparent. Qusair is not really as ‘strategically’ important a location as most analysts claim, but the battle may be so.

    Posted by Nadim Shehadi | May 24, 2013, 5:07 am
  9. I don’t put much stock in stories of either a salafist emirate or a possible Alawite state headed by Assad. Neither is feasible or even sustainable. What I can tell is that regime and Hezbullah media outlets have been wildly optimistic about the regime’s chances of taking over the city, and of note is the “temperature” emerging from rebel sources near there. It is nowhere near as panicked and despaired as it was in the build up to the fall of Bab Amr in Homs last year.

    I think if Qusayr falls then the regime can keep its grip on Homs, and that means that Damascus remains connected to the regime’s power base. If the rebels beat back the regime then Damascus risks being isolated, and for Hezbullah this could be a major propaganda blow to their image. There is also the advantage to either side of holding this territory “de facto” in the event of a political agreement.

    Posted by Maysaloon | May 24, 2013, 6:06 am
  10. I’m failing to understand why the obvious, and oft repeated, reasons are not satisfactory.

    Al Qusayr is important for the regime, because it cuts off the opposition supply lines to Homs, and allows the regime to hold Homs and thereby connect Damascus and the northern coast to the center. The regime has publicly stated their aim is to hold the center and from slowly push back the opposition.

    Al Qusayr is important for the opposition because it is the supply route from Lebanon to Homs, and also allows them to take and hold Homs, severing the regime’s territory in two (Damascus and the northern coast), as was the case until recently.

    Homs is the strategically important area, Al Qusayr is important because it is needed to fully control Homs. Al Qusayr is not a ‘distraction’ from the battles for Damascus. The opposition cannot attack Damscus if they lose Al Qusayr.

    As for Hezballah, they see this battle as their battle because if the regime falls, they will lose as well. And Al Qusayr is right at the border so they can rely on the network of villagers they have trained over the past year to support them and hold ground. Among Hezballah’s base, involvement in Syria is not seen as terribly as other publics do. In Hermel, I’m sure the residents are pushing for the party to get even more engaged to quell the rocket attacks.

    It’s a mis-reading to think Hezballah needs to be ordered by Iran to back the regime. The party will do everything to maintain its own supply lines, and that means making sure the regime survives the war.

    Posted by RedLeb | May 24, 2013, 7:56 am
  11. RedLeb

    I think those reasons are sensible, but I’m still uncertain about why Hizbullah has committed fighters to al-Qusayr, of all places. Is the regime in danger of falling if al-Qusayr stays in FSA hands? Or has Hizbullah been deeply involved in other arenas in less conspicuous ways, since the conflict began? The way Nasrallah pitched it, it seemed like this marked a red line of sorts and a new strategic calculus for the party, but maybe they just couldn’t keep their involvement secret any longer?

    Al-Qusayr has been flipping back and forth between the regime and the rebels for a couple years now. Why has Hizbullah just joined the fray (if it has)?

    Also, I have to believe that the party’s view of the conflict includes scenarios where the regime falls and Hizbullah keeps on keeping on. It’s not a zero-sum game, and I’m not sure “the party will do everything to maintain its own supply lines.” At some point, if the tide really turns against Assad, Hizbullah will switch gears. I can’t see them fighting til the last man to save the regime. There’s always Rafik Hariri International Airport (for supplies). 😉

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | May 24, 2013, 9:39 am
  12. I think that it’s very much to do with the internal Lebanese situation as well as the many valid points adding up to make this strategically viable. Since the very start there seems to have been waves of sectarianism directed towards the Shia of Lebanon and much rhetoric as to what will happen to Hezbollah once the regime falls since the start. This is not just rhetoric, and by many accounts preparation has been undertaken. The taking of Qusayr is a strategic choice as it is a major link between Sunni fundamentalists on either side of the border. I think it can be seen as Hezb’s way of making sure the internal scene does not threaten them as well as maintaining the area in case of a strategic pull back by the regime. RedLeb mentioned rocket attacks into Hermel (and ?unverified? sectarian attacks on Syrian Leb villages) which makes this a populist choice as well. In the end, these Lebanese villages need to be protected as well and if there was even one shot fired at the villages, this would be justification for the Hezbollah response to pacify the border.

    Posted by Mahmoud | May 24, 2013, 10:04 am
  13. QN,
    I think it’s a mixture of timing and opportunity. Based on my second (third?) hand sources, I get the impression the involvement has been gradual. First some fighters from the border villages got involved. Then the party started building up a ‘border resistance’ of sorts among the villagers in Syria (mentioned as Al Jaysh Al Sha3bi in reports), and then they started sending actual fighting units. Basically expanding their zone of operation while all the while maintaining solid supply lines to Lebanon.

    The village militias also give the regime the ability to hold ground, rather than just fight militants and move on. I think this why the current push into Al Qusayr seems so important to the regime and the party. They’re expecting to hold Al Qusayr (with the trained villagers) and push onwards (with the regular troops). No more cat and mouse chases.

    I’m also inclined to believe that Hezballah is sending a small number of highly trained units, in the order of low hundreds, rather than thousands of fighters. While it is a sizable commitment, it’s not very taxing and certainly not ’til the last man’.

    I do wonder if the party is considering options for the regime’s fall. If the recent jingoism in Al Akhbar is shared within Hezballah’s command, they might well believe they can win this militarily. Although I think the leadership knows the battle for what is: bloody negotiations for the Geneva II conference.

    Posted by RedLeb | May 24, 2013, 10:15 am
  14. AIG

    YOUR the only person on this forum with a military backround.

    Wouldn’t it make sense that apart from securing the road to the coast that this might be the pivot point to retake Derra and the South?

    Whats your take.

    Posted by Enlightened | May 24, 2013, 10:50 am
  15. Enlightened,

    Looking at the map there is no connection to Deraa and the south. The supplies lines there to the rebels come from Jordan, not Lebanon.

    I think looking just at military objectives is missing the point here. As I wrote above the objective of the operation at Al-Qusayr is first and foremost to convince the West that Iran and its proxies are all-in behind Assad and that the war can be dragged on for a very long time. It is clear to me that if the Hezbollah involvement is accepted by the West (which means they will only talk), we will next see Iranian Revolutionary Guards. They will have then shown that they are more determined to prop Assad then the West is to take him down. The “resistance” want to leverage this to negotiate a better deal in which they still control Syria’s foreign policy.

    The main reason Al-Qusayr was chosen is that it is a convenient place for Hezbollah to fight. It is close to Lebanon and their supply and reinforcement lines to be short and secure. There is nothing strategic about this city.

    Posted by AIG | May 24, 2013, 11:55 am
  16. This is exactly the strategy that the “resistance” hopes the West will pursue:

    And the Al-Qusayr offensive is aimed at strengthening such voices in the West.

    Posted by AIG | May 24, 2013, 1:34 pm
  17. Aig

    Thanks I don’t disagree with what you say. I also don’t agree with much of the analysis in the media regarding Qusayir being the “Alamo” This will be long and bloody.

    What do you think if Hezbollah gets really “bloodied” in thefuture would Israel llook to take them down completely? Or has the mess in Lebanon in the South altered Israeli military thinking?

    Posted by Enlightened | May 24, 2013, 10:00 pm
  18. This should’ve been filed under satire :-/

    Posted by Tarek | May 25, 2013, 5:02 am
  19. Enlightened,

    Taking Hezbollah down completely means killing most of the Shia in Lebanon. Even if you kill everyone of their fighters and destroy all their weapons, in a few years there will be other fighters and other weapons. Same with Hamas. Israel’s aim is not to destroy these organizations, but to take away their asymmetrical advantage. The Hezbollah weapons are only useful if they can actually be used against Israel. The reason Hezbollah stopped all “resistance” operations since the 2006 war is that Israel was able to change the rules of the game. The cost of using these weapons became much higher for Hezbollah, in fact it became intolerable.

    This is the paradox for movements like Hezbollah and Hamas. The more popular they become, the more of a civilian base they have, the more integrated they become into the countries they work from, the less effective a “resistance” movement they become because they become more like the Arab states and can be deterred.

    Have you heard any mention of the Sheba Farms in the last few years? What happened to this main target of Hezbollah? Zero attacks and hardly a mention since 2006. Hezbollah and Hamas are much more of a problem for the Lebanese and Palestinians than they are for Israel, and the fate of these organizations will be decided by the Lebanese and Palestinians, not Israel. Frankly, should an organization that has allowed the Israeli-Lebanese border to be the most quiet it has ever been in history in the last almost 7 years be categorized as a “resistance” organization? If you don’t mount even ONE “resistance” operation in 7 years, are you really in the “resistance” business? I don’t think so.

    Posted by AIG | May 25, 2013, 10:40 am
  20. One Palestinian on SC is absolutely disgusted with Nasrallah. I think the Shia/Sunni rift has reared its ugly head now that Syria has become a proxy war of Iran against sunni arabdom. A recent news report has declared that the west needs to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions. From the Saudis no less…

    Posted by Akbar Palace | May 25, 2013, 3:26 pm
  21. AIG :”The Hezbollah weapons are only useful if they can actually be used against Israel.”

    Are you Yossi Beilin in real life?

    “Dr. Aaron Lerner Date: 22 May 2013

    In a live interview broadcast on the morning news magazine program of Israel
    Radio this morning, Yossi Beilin told anchor Aryeh Golan that until now
    Israel took the operative position to effectively allow Hizbullah to receive
    rockets and that as a result it now has tens of thousands of rockets.

    Beilin did don’t say this as a criticism of the policy but instead explained
    that the tens of thousands of rockets held by Hizbullah isn’t the issue as
    Israel’s concern is only if Hizbullah actually shoots the rockets.

    Beilin suggested that the only reason Israel acted against the missile
    shipments at this time was that Israel thought that Syria would not respond.”

    Deterrence works both ways. Listen up to Israeli expertise on the matter of HA’s arsenal. But, that sort of analysis isn’t nearly as comfy for hasbaristas to discuss in front of the goyim.

    Dr Lerner also offers this updated German (BND) intelligence assessment of the Assad regime et al current chances for survival . Given the tight-as-ticks coziness between Israeli and German security, it’s understandable that he would make note of it. The BND presentation discusses the regime’s ground game achievements and priorities.

    There are rebel statements in the al_Akhbar piece linked below that can be
    triangulated with some of the BND points in regard to the strategic
    importance of Qusayr from the axis-of-E perspective. There are also teasing
    hints of some advanced weaponry @ work:

    “On the other [evil axis] side of the battle, sources informed of the
    military operations against Qusayr tell Al-Akhbar that “booby trapped
    trenches and tunnels hindered the progress of the attacking units.”

    The same sources maintain that *”the fighters are operating sophisticated sniper guns by remote control.” The sniper is able to hide somewhere and monitor targets over a video screen.”’s-booby-trap-blueprint-qusayr

    With the proper technology, remote viewers can be anywhere these days. All hail satellite uplinks.

    Posted by lally | May 25, 2013, 4:43 pm
  22. “Or has Hizbullah been deeply involved in other arenas in less conspicuous ways, since the conflict began? The way Nasrallah pitched it, it seemed like this marked a red line of sorts and a new strategic calculus for the party, but maybe they just couldn’t keep their involvement secret any longer? ”

    I don’t want to sound ornery, but how can Lebanese people not know this? I was rather skeptical of the idea of scores of Hezbollah fighters being killed in Lebanon before now, on the simple grounds that you can’t hide stuff like that. People in villages would know people who were fighting in Syria, people who had been killed, etc. Aren’t there Lebanese journalists who can get straight answers on things like “have lots of people from your village been fighting in Syria”?

    Posted by Rotsapsky | May 25, 2013, 5:11 pm
  23. Lala,

    The Hezzi’s great achievement has been to throw the backing of Sunni arabdom into the lap of the neocon, likudnik, hasbarite, khaxars living in the Zionist entity.

    Another ME miracle like the parting of the Red Sea.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | May 25, 2013, 10:30 pm
  24. A couple of points that are not mentioned in the discussion before. It is important to seperate two issues: why is Hezbollah fighting for Assad, and why are they fighting in Qusayr?

    Hezbollah has been involved with Assads crackdown almost from the start. Their involvement have been increasing gradually, to the point that it is now in the open. The reason Hezbollah’s involvement has increased is that Assad is under severe pressure: he is losing area after area, slowly but surely, and his military gets slowly depleted. Hence, the need for additional troops. I do not claim to know why Hezbollah is such willing ally to supply precious lives to surpress the rebellion, maybe they are under direct orders of Iran, maybe they belief their own propaganda about the Shia being threatened (well, they are now, but it is a textbook case of a self-fulfilling prophecy). But the fact is that they are fighting as part of Assads troops now, wherever he needs them.

    So why are they fighting in Qusayr? Actually, they are not only fighting in Qusayr. Their involvement is reported in several locations (rumours, but persistent ones), Sayida Zaynab in southern Damascus most often. Qusayr then is simply the battlefield that is closest to the part of the Lebanese border that is easily accesible for Hezbollah. It is just the place where Hezbollah fighters can most easily replace the Syrian Army that is much needed elsewhere. Qusayr is certainly strategic, but only on a regional level: it is one of the strongholds of the rebels in a region that is still largely government controlled, and it is an approach to the city of Homs. For both reason, the regime is fighting there, like they are fighting every pocket of resistance they can get to. Most battlefields are independent of each other, so a capture of Qusayr will not have nationwide repercussions.

    Posted by cerridwen | May 28, 2013, 5:02 pm
  25. Reblogged this on arifalamsyah81.

    Posted by arifalamsyah81 | June 16, 2013, 5:30 pm
  26. The Double Standard™

    Example 36c:

    Posted by Akbar Palace | June 17, 2013, 6:51 am


  1. Pingback: Hizbullah and Rational Choice | Qifa Nabki - May 30, 2013

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