GOVERNMENT forces in Syria have once again captured the small
town of Maaloula, north of Damascus, where inhabitants converse in
both Arabic and Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ. Troops
backed by fighters from the Lebanese Shia group Hizbollah entered
the town on Monday.
The retaking of Maaloula is part of a wider offensive over
recent days in which forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad cut
off rebel supply routes to Lebanon and regained control of parts of
the arterial highway from Damascus northwards to Homs and
Maaloula's misfortune in finding itself in such a strategically
important position for both sides in the conflict has meant that
the ancient town in the Qalamoun mountains has constantly been
fought over: it has changed hands four times in the past three
It was in December last year, when the town was under the
control of the al-Qaeda-backed al-Nusra Front Islamic group, that
13 nuns were abducted from the Mar Takla convent and taken to
Yabroud, close to the Lebanese border (News, 13 December 2013).
They were released in March as part of a prisoner-exchange
agreement, shortly before government troops stormed and recaptured
Yabroud (News, 14 March).
Maaloula has paid a price for being at the centre of so much
fighting. Most of its inhabitants fled long ago, leaving churches
and monasteries unguarded and uncared for. The fourth-century Mar
Sarkis Greek Orthodox monastery, on a hilltop close to the town, is
one of the buildings to have been caught up in the conflict, and
crosses and ancient religious paintings have been damaged.
Syrian state television showed what it said were the bodies of
al-Nusra fighters killed during last weekend's government assault
President al-Assad said on Sunday that the conflict was turning
in favour of his forces.
Whether this latest change in fortunes signals an approaching
end to the wider civil war is difficult to say. It would be rash to
predict that Maaloula will soon regain its reputation as being a
quiet corner of Syria, where pilgrims can walk the streets of a
town rooted in the earliest days of Christianity.