NEWS ANALYSIS: US strike a double-edged sword for Syria's Christians
SYRIAN businessman Gaby Nakazy keeps the family’s passports and children’s school reports in a bag in the basement of his clothes factory in Jaramana, a mainly Christian and Druze suburb of Damascus. If Islamist rebels exploit a US attack to advance into their district, Mr Nakazy will grab the bag and join the 1.2-million Syrians who have fled to Lebanon. At least 450,000 of Syria’s 2-million Christians have been displaced, Gregorios III, patriarch of the Church of Antioch, said last week.
Like many other Damascenes, they fear an attack would worsen the civil war rather than put an end to it. They are also deeply concerned about becoming a lightning rod for Muslim radicals.
"Any large-scale rebel offensive in the wake of a US-led campaign could leave the capital’s Christian community vulnerable," said Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst for the region at Maplecroft, a UK-based risk consultant. Christian fears have been heightened in the past few days as rebels led by al-Qaeda-affiliated groups pushed into Maaloula, an ancient village 56km northeast of Damascus, where residents still speak a version of Aramaic, a biblical language believed to have been used by Jesus.
Bishop George Abu Zakham, speaking from Damascus, said the rebels were inside the village, where Christians make up two-thirds of the population. "The presence of extremist groups is very scary," Bishop Zakham said on Friday.
Syria’s state-run Sana news agency said on Monday night army units continued pursuing "terrorists" from the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front in Maaloula, "eliminating a number of them". There were clashes in the vicinity of the village at night, according to Rami Abdurrahman, head of UK-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
He said there are reports of 16 dead among residents who took up arms to fight the rebels since the violence there started last week. Salim Eid, a Christian who lives in an area of Homs under the control of Mr Assad’s army, said the events in Maaloula reminded him of how his brother and other family members were forced by the rebels to vacate their homes and farms in Umm Sharshouh village in Homs Province earlier this year.