Syrian town of Saidnaya battles armed groups

The town of Saidnaya, north of Damascus, which is home to an ancient monastery that is a pilgrimage site for Christians around the world, has been defending itself from repeated attacks by armed opposition groups.

al-monitor Visitors attend the lighting of a 35-meter (115-foot) Christmas tree at the Saidnaya monastery, near Damascus, Dec. 22, 2006. The strategically located monastery has come under repeated attack from rebel groups. Photo by REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri.

Topics covered

syrian conflict, syria civil war, syria, religion, lebanon

Feb 9, 2014

The damage caused by the battles on the way leading to the Saidnaya monastery is not major: some crumbled rocks or burnt grass. However, once you step inside the monastery, you are hit by a hair-raising cold breeze and a shock at the magnitude of damage, whether it is the broken glass or the multiple blows inflicted to the roof. The destruction was caused by missiles used by gunmen to try to bring down the bronze sculpture of Christ. “A single step can put your life at risk; sniping is still underway,” said a soldier. In the corner, two people talk about last night’s developments. Not a quiet night goes by at the monastery.

Historians say that the Cherubim Monastery (cherubim is Arabic for "angels") dates back to the 3rd century, given the caves inside the mountain. Some of these caves, to which Christians once escaped from the persecution of pagans, can be seen as one heads to the top of the monastery. In 529, the first edifices for worship were built, and with time, they turned into ruins. The monastery was first mentioned by Arab writer Chihab al-Din al-Umari in the 14th century. He said, “This monastery was built by the Byzantines with limestone,” and he described its architecture.

In 1737, British prelate Richard Pocock found one monk at the monastery, and wrote that “the Cherubim Monastery is inhabited and accommodates one monk and one church that is in good condition and adequate for the celebration of prayers.” In 1982, under Patriarch Ignatius IV, the monastery was rebuilt on the highest point of the Qalamoun Mountains, with its original design and architecture preserved.

Reaching the Cherubim Monastery from Damascus (8 kilometers, or 5 miles) requires around 90 minutes because of the numerous checkpoints and thorough searches, particularly in areas that were previously under the control of opposition gunmen, such as al-Tal. From the checkpoint in Saidnaya (near the Paradise Restaurant) to the Cherubim Monastery, one cannot stop for even a moment on the road. To avoid snipers, the car speeds toward the monastery in the middle of the vast mountains, through the populated area, until reaching the towering Cherubim Monastery at an altitude of 2,130 meters [6,099 feet], where the latest battle of Saidnaya occurred at dawn on Jan. 14. From the monastery, one can see the majority of the Qalamoun areas and the joint slopes with Lebanon.

It is not the first time that the monastery has been attacked. A year ago, mortar shells fell on it and there were attempts to infiltrate it. The latest attack is the fourth.

In addition to its religious value, the monastery has great strategic and military value that helps in controlling the surrounding plain, cutting the supply of arms and besieging the towns of Saidnaya, Marouna and Maarra. This would lead to having the upper hand on the road leading from Yabrood to Rankous and al-Tal, and give the party controlling these areas strategic points in the Qalamoun region.

A military source in Saidnaya confirmed that “the Syrian army and national defense forces are fighting desperately because the war is against takfiri groups and to defend their homeland, territory and dignity.” He added, “It is either the monastery or death. The icons there serve as an honor for us. Six soldiers were killed in the latest attack.” With a sad tone, he explained, “Imagine that a stranger is slaughtering me on my territory,” and pointed out that it was possible to eliminate gunmen, yet the most dangerous battle was the one against takfiri groups that had swept Syria.

“The battle at the Cherubim Monastery is a direct message and attempt to achieve a field gain to put pressure on the Syrian official delegation during the negotiations in Geneva.”

The commander of the Cherubim Monastery operations told As-Safir, “The attack was based on three groups: an assault force (itself divided into two groups — the first tasked with turning from the southwest and attacking gunmen, and second with cutting off supply and aid coming from Rankous), a cover force and a backup force.”

“The battle began at 3:30 a.m. with a surprise attack through fog carried out by terrorists against the surrounding military points. Three soldiers were killed. The fighting continued until 5:15 a.m. and gunmen were able to reach the boundary walls of the monastery. There they were buried.”

He pointed out that, at 7:45 a.m., some militants tried to escape and the last one of them was killed at 8:35 a.m. The monastery was subsequently under massive shellfire until 10 a.m. It then turned into intermittent shelling until 11 a.m., as Syrian forces started firing back. A field commander confirmed that, since the last attack, the monastery had been struck by mortar shells and subjected to infiltration attempts on a daily basis. He stated that “the forces defending the town launch sporadic strikes because the presence of civilians in the region prevents the possibility of a comprehensive qualitative military operation as it is the case in Adra, where insurgents are using children and women as human shields.”

A participant in the clashes at the Cherubim Monastery indicated that “militants carried perfume bottles, a toothpick and women’s underwear. In terms of military equipment, they had communication devices, grenades and machine guns and each of them carried a knife. They also had raw meat that they would use in case of serious wounds [since some believe placing a piece of meat on a wound quickens the healing process].” The participant indicated that the militants burned the bodies of their own dead in the mountains to prevent identification and so that they would not be forced to carry the corpses. Transportation is difficult because Syrian forces have many observation points in the region.

According to one participant in the fierce battles, militants were filming the operation, and a satellite channel even heralded the breaking into the Cherubim Monastery and the fall of the Saidnaya.

Meanwhile, a military source in Saidnaya, having moved between several hotspots in Syria, said that “militants in Syria are divided into four groups: militants on the border who benefit from smuggling operations, jihadist militants, militants wanted by the judiciary and militants forced by other militants to join their ranks under threat.”

He asserted that the situation was improving and the protests staged recently in a number of Syrian cities against the militants were the biggest proof of that. Even if the participants are not affiliated with the Assad regime, they reject the presence and practices of strangers on their own land. Those strangers have shown creativity in committing murder, rape and shameful practices against humanity, morality and religion. “Takfirism undermines pacifism — the prevailing ideology. It also violates religions,” he added. “We are fighting for our honor, our true religions, our civilization, our future and the future of our children.”

A source monitoring the battles in Saidnaya confirmed: “I have counted 63 corpses until today (from Syria, France, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan)," pointing out that negotiations are underway on the delivery of 18 of them.

A military source in Saidnaya reported, from the dignitaries of the region where militants are located, that the people of the region and even the fighters from the National Defense Forces and the Syrian army expected the militants to launch a big offensive for four reasons: the strategic and military importance of the site, its religious symbolism, their desire to avenge their defeat in this battle and, most important, the threat of financial supporters to cut off aid if “victory or at least a breakthrough” was not achieved.

These militants are constantly attempting to break into the Cherubim Monastery, which houses the second-largest statue of Jesus Christ in the world and the largest in the region (it was erected in 2013). However, they are defeated by the guards of monastery, coming from different sects (which is confirmed by their names). The statue of Christ on the mountain, holding a sign that reads “I come to save the world,” is saving the region from strangers to it and to Syria.

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More from  Carmen Jokhadar

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