Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Significance of What Happened in Maloula

By far, the most detailed analysis of Jabhat al-Nusra's incursion into Maloula can be found at Joshua Landis' blog, Syria Comment here.



The video and photographic evidence available after the attack indicates that the operation was a coordinated effort between (at least) the following groups: Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Baba ‘Amr Brigades (a rebel group possibly affiliated with the SIF – Syrian Islamic Front), FSA Commandos Unit, and Soqour al-Sham. A video from Ahrar al-Sham can be found here. A video of shooting, apparently as part of the initial attack, is here.

My own Ma’loulan sources tell me that displaced people from Duma (between Ma’loula and Damascus) had taken up residence in Ma’loula, and cooperated with the rebels to facilitate their entrance. Ma’loulans now resent them for acting as a 5th column inside the very community that gave them shelter when they fled their own town as refugees. The danger with such cases is that it will generate suspicion and ill-will toward refugees generally.

Other photos of rebels posted online after taking Ma’loula can be found here, here, and here. One poster of photos from the operation to take the checkpoint refers to the soldiers as “apostates.” One poster seems to be from Somalia (unknown if he participated in the attack).
A Facebook page shows an alleged photo of one of the soldiers killed in the attack. Reportedly, at least 8 soldiers were killed on the first day.

Ma’loula only has one mosque. When the rebels entered the city center, they went to that mosque to declare victory and perform a typical chorus of takbiir (the shouting of Allahu Akbar). [...]

The big question is: Why Ma’loula? What need is there for rebels to capture this town? Talk of “liberation” certainly has no currency when the local residents aren’t asking for any and would prefer to be left alone. Was there any strategic importance to the town? Or was it merely an easy target for “victory,” not well-guarded and unable to resist being taken over? Some have suggested that taking the town was needed in order to link to opposition resistance efforts in the nearby Qalamoon region. Jabhat al-Nusra’s official account, however, referred to the attack as part of the “Eye-for-an-Eye” revenge campaign, initially declared after the chemical weapons attacks in the Ghouta.
Al-Jazeera’s reporting was one-sided, as usual. It explained the attack exclusively in strategic terms, noting the town’s connections to other nearby communities with a rebel presence. They failed even to mention Jabhat al-Nusra’s presence in this campaign, instead referring only to the FSA’s involvement and ignoring the central role of Islamists in the operation.
When the rebels first came into the town, they reportedly told people “Don’t be afraid; stay inside your homes.” A video posted online by the Katibat Souwar Bab ‘Amr shows a rebel speaking to his men, affirming that (paraphrase, not verbatim):
We don’t shoot at any church or at civilians; we’re only here to push back against the oppression and will only target those who target us. They (the people of the town) are our people and part of our country. The regime has persecuted everyone, from all sects. Here we are in front of the church and everything is safe and the houses are safe.
Despite the affirmation of goodwill toward civilians and the pledge to not harm churches, I was told that the first mortar fired by rebels hit a church. Since then, others have conveyed to me that churches and monasteries have been damaged in yesterday and today’s fighting. Even if the damage is unintentional, local residents will likely not feel very understanding toward their uninvited “liberators.” I was told that at least some of the rebels cursed some Christians and threatened to kill them for being infidels. The rebel speaking in the video quoted above may reflect one group’s approach to taking the town, but several groups with different ideologies were participating, and Nusra’s presence confuses things. When Nusra’s revenge campaign began, many threats were voiced against towns and civilians. Though it seems that civilians survived largely unscathed in the events in Ma’loula, it is disconcerting to see the attack associated with a revenge campaign. One of Nusra’s photos for the attack on Ma’loula was published on Facebook with a verse from the Qur’an stating: “Allah give us patience and victory over the infidels”—perhaps not the best slogan to use when launching an al-Qaida-led attack in which a Jordanian Islamist blows himself up at the gate of the oldest Christian village in the country. [...]

Earlier this week, before the attack, Robert Fisk reported form Maloula here..



So I chat to old Father Fayez who's serving time as the local priest and he refuses to talk politics, but insists that his people, in their old, blue-painted houses, live side-by-side with their Muslim neighbours; indeed, the 20,000 Christians and Muslims living in three villages all speak Aramaic. But the sunlight and sharply-defined shade in the church courtyard reflect the darkness that has fallen across the lives of these people. There had been three kidnappings of Christians, the priest says; all had been released after ransom was paid.

Then the owner of a Christian restaurant set off last month to collect some Muslim workers from a neighbouring village, and he'd been abducted on the way. The Free Syria Army brought the kidnapped man back to Maaloula. I drive to Seydnaya where the church is built, Peter-like, on a rock, the basilica of Seyd Naya – the Holy Virgin in Syriac – with a clutch of orphans and an off-duty Syrian army conscript cleaning the floors and bringing water for the children.
And then an angry nun approaches in her black habit, flapping like a blackbird, frameless spectacles pinned to the outside of her head covering. "You journalists want to harm this country," she chirps. "Before the war, we lived in peace. We had holidays, vacations, women and children could walk in the street at midnight." She stalked off, only to return – as I knew she would – for a second assault. She had a story to tell, for the Holy Spirit – while it may drift through the narrow cold stone corridors of Seyd Naya - cannot prevent violence from touching the church. "A boy wanted to come here to pray for his marriage because he was marrying a local girl," the nun said. "But then we heard today that his father has been killed in the massacre at Deraya…"

So I consulted Sister Stephanie Haddad who said that Seyd Naya was peaceful – she passed over the shells which hit the monastery seven months ago, supposedly fired by the Free Syria Army – and was now sheltering refugees from Homs and Hama and Tell and from Deraya itself. So I asked the obvious question. What would Jesus say if he turned up in Syria today? "If he came now, he would tell the people: don't kill, burn, shoot, kidnap or steal. All these things are mentioned in the Bible."


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