A rebel offensive north of the Syrian capital Damascus seeks to cut off the regime’s access to the beleaguered cities of Aleppo and Homs in the north. If successful, it would inhibit the government of Bashar Assad’s ability to rule increasingly dispatched swaths of the country.
A coalition of Islamist opposition groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, is fighting in the Qalamoun Mountains close the border with Lebanon to deny the military access to the only highway that runs directly between the capital and the cities of Hama and Homs where forces loyal to Assad have struggled to contain rebel activity. From there, highways also provide access to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial capital, as well as the Alawite homeland of Assad’s tribe which has largely escaped fighting throughout a civil war that is now well into its third year.
Caught in the crossfire is Syria’s Christian minority. The largely Christian village of Maaloula is situated on the frontline of this battle. Most of its roughly 3,000 residents have fled the violence. Despite accusations from the regime that Islamist rebels desecrated churches in the area, the BBC’s correspondent on the ground, Jeremy Bowen, saw no such deliberate destruction even if fighting was still going on.
Many Syrian Christians halfheartedly support Assad’s dictatorship for fear of the Sunni Muslim majority in the country taking power while moderate rebel groups are anxious not to be seen as persecuting Christians for fear of jeopardizing international sympathy and support.
The area south and west of Maaloula is not only critical for logistical purposes; it hosts a number of military installations, including the headquarters of the Syrian army’s 3rd Armored Division, the Al-Nasiriyah Air Base, which is among few still controlled by the government, as well as ammunition depots and other fortified positions.
The objective of the rebel operation is probably to cut off the regime’s ability to sustain defenses in the north, where the opposition already controls large areas, and surround the capital Damascus. Rebels are simultaneously advancing from Ghouta, northeast of Damascus, which was one of the neighborhoods that was targeted in a chemical weapons attack late last month.