McClatchy Foreign Staff
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 refuge in the Lebanese town of Arsal.
International aid officials said that what began as a trickle of refugees on Friday became a flood Sunday. As many as 20,000 people fled across the border ahead of a Syrian government offensive to seize control of the strategic Qalamoun region that Anti-Lebanon mountain range that forms 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 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 isa 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, whose normal population is 50,000 but whose size has nearly doubled from previous waves of Syrian refugees.
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. ⅛The 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 said.
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.