New York         Dr. Cesar Chelala

The predominantly Christian village of Maaloula is the new target of attacks by rebel groups in Syria, showing another sad aspect of a brutal war. Although it has a small population (2,000 people according to a 2005 estimate) the town, located 56 km to the northeast of Damascus, is still one of the three places where Western Aramaic (a dialect close to the language spoken by Jesus of Nazareth) is still spoken.

The Jabhat al-Nusra rebel group –listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department- one of the most effective rebel forces in Syria, conducted hit-and-run attacks on the village terrorizing its civilian population. A nun from the Mar Takla monastery located in the village reported that 100 people had taken refuge in the convent and 27 orphans were taken overnight to caves located nearby “so that they wouldn’t be scared.”

The attack on Maaloula highlights Syrian Christians’ fear that those that may replace the Assad regime will not tolerate minority religions. Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed the attacks, despite a heavy army presence in the village. In the meantime, U.N. Humanitarian chief Valerie Amos met with Syrian government officials in Damascus asking for help for the civilian trapped in areas of heavy fighting.

The attack happened approximately at the time that a video was released to an international audience showing how a rebel commander killed in cold blood seven captured government soldiers by firing his gun at the back of the soldiers’ heads. The video confirmed that brutality is not a prerogative of government forces but rather a tragic course of events in a miserable war. It also shows the dilemma facing those in the U.S. Congress who support rebel forces.

The fighting came also at the time that President Barak Obama was lobbying members of Congress for a strike on Syria, and finding an unexpected resistance to this policy. Many in Congress still remember with regret that similar arguments were brandished previous to the disastrous Iraq war.

There is a clear difference between members of the Obama administration and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on the character of the rebels fighting the Assad regime. Events have demonstrated that both sides are capable of equally brutal acts against civilians. However, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the rebels had “increasingly been defined by their moderation,” and denied that al-Qaida was operating in Syria, despite evidence of its links to the Jabhat al-Nusra group which attacked the Maaloula village, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Kerry knew that he was lying.

In testimony to Congress Kerry stated that he didn’t agree that “a majority of the opposition are al-Qaida and the bad guys.” He estimated that extremist groups amounted to only 15 to 25 percent of the opposition. He admitted, though, that al-Nusra and other groups were “fighting each other, even now.”

Among those denouncing the attack on Maaloula is Amin Gemayel, the President of the Lebanese Phalange Party. Gemayel has carried out contacts with both the representative of U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki-moon in Beirut and Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, U.N. Assistant Secretary for Political Affairs.

Amin Gemayel had received several distressed calls from residents of Maaloula, who were afraid for their lives and wanted international protection. Civilian in Maaloula have become unwilling pawns in a greater, brutal war. Destruction of the village by wanton rebel attacks would be not only a humanitarian tragedy but a linguistic and cultural tragedy as well.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is the foreign correspondent for The Middle East Times International (Australia).


Copyright 2007