Jihadists from the Syrian armed opposition have opened a new battle, this time in the historic town of Maaloula on the outskirts of Damascus. Maaloula, which is one of the best-known Christian cities in the region or even the world, witnessed violent clashes yesterday [Sept. 4] between extremist militants and members of the Syrian regime army. Militants took control of large segments of this historical town.
The clashes began after a Jordanian national carried out a suicide bombing at a checkpoint in Maaloula, which lies on the international highway linking Homs and Damascus, 50 kilometers [31 miles] from the capital. The bomber blew himself up using a car bomb, killing at least eight Syrian soldiers and wounding others.
An on-the-ground source told As-Safir that the checkpoint bombing was the first step in "the battle to liberate Maaloula." He said, "Yes, our brothers the mujahedeen announced the start of a battle to conquer the capital of the crusaders." He added, "Our brother, a warrior named Abu Haytham al-Urduni, attacked the Alawite army's checkpoint using a car bomb. Afterward, our brothers the mujahedeen entered the city to liberate it."
The way in which the checkpoint was attacked resembles the method used by the Jaish al-Muhajireen al-Ansar in storming the Menagh military airport in the northern outskirts of Aleppo. A Saudi national carried out a suicide bombing at the airport's gate before militants entered the area.
According to the same source, the attack on Maaloula was coordinated by several militant Islamic organizations, including Jabhat al-Nusra in Qalamoun, the Islamic Ahrar al-Sham movement and the Qalamoun Liberation Front, affiliated with the Brigades of the Descendants of the Prophet.
Meanwhile, a Syrian military source confirmed to As-Safir that clashes had taken place in Maaloula. He explained, "Terrorist groups infiltrated, and they spread throughout the town to intimidate the population. Violent clashes occurred, forcing them to withdraw and consolidate in the vicinity of the Maaloula Safir Hotel. Clashes are still ongoing."
Residents confirmed that clashes had occurred and militants were concentrated in the vicinity of the hotel. The military source added, "Syrian army helicopters intervened in the clashes, in conjunction with the arrival of army reinforcements."
Later, the militants were able to deploy again after the arrival of new groups. Speaking to As-Safir, residents added that the militants were able to gain control of large parts of Maaloula, and once again spread throughout the town. Starting at 7 p.m., a large number of them centered themselves in the town square. A number of vehicles equipped with DShK machine guns were observed in most of the town's neighborhoods, coinciding with a decrease in the intensity of clashes.
A religious figure, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told As-Safir, "What is happening in Maaloula makes our hearts bleed. This is what is happening across Syria. We had hoped that the town would be spared, because of its holy sites that are sacred to Christians around the world." The source, who left Maaloula a few days ago, said, "The Roman Catholic monastery in Maaloula closed recently because of the successive threats we had received." He noted that the attacks the town had suffered "coincided with a number of religious occasions and celebrations that, before the crisis, attracted visitors from around the world. Visitors came to celebrate the Feast of the Cross, which occurs on Sept. 14, as well as the Feast of St. Takla on Sept. 22."
The source added, "We will not stop praying for the protection of our holy places, and for an end to the bloodshed on the soil of our beloved Syrian nation."
Maaloula is located on the eastern slopes of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range, about 50 kilometers northwest of Damascus. The town is an important Christian landmark, and contains a number of churches and monasteries. A number of these date back to the first centuries A.D., the most important being the Mar Takla Monastery, which is said to contain the remains of St. Takla, a pupil of St. Paul. To this day, residents of Maaloula still speak Aramaic (Syriac), the language of Christ, along with Arabic.
In conjunction with the fighting in Maaloula, violent clashes erupted in several other locations of the Qalamoun plateau. The city of Rahiba was the scene of the most violent clashes, where militants affiliated with the Liwa al-Islam Brigade entered the city and took positions to attack the 81st Brigade. On-the-ground sources said that the clashes "could stop at noon, following the intervention of a number of Qalamoun notables who are starting negotiations with the fighting parties in an effort to secure the exit of civilians from Rahiba."
It is worth noting that the day before yesterday [Sept. 3], the Melkite Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East Gregory III Laham announced that nearly 450,000 Syrian Christians had fled their homes seeking refugee both inside and outside Syria. He warned the war on Syria could lead to the destruction of the Christian presence there.