MAALOULA: Syrian government troops seized at least three border communities, including an ancient Christian hamlet, north of Damascus yesterday, state media and activists said, in a dramatic one-day sweep that suggests rebel strongholds along the Lebanese frontier are near total collapse.
The capture of Sarkha, Maaloula and Jibbeh was the fastest series of army successes against rebels in the Qalamoun region along the border with Lebanon since the government launched an offensive in the mountainous terrain in November.
The government gains have allowed the military, backed by the Lebanese Shiite militant Hezbollah group, to squeeze a key rebel supply route that has long funneled weapons, supplies and fighters to rural Damascus. Syria’s state news agency said forces loyal to President Bashar Assad captured Sarkha early yesterday before also sweeping rebels out of Maaloula, an ancient Christian village set into the rocky hills.
Hours later, a Syrian military commander said troops also seized the nearby town of Jibbeh. The seizure of the border communities came a day after government troops backed by Hezbollah fighters captured the nearby town of Rankous.
By yesterday afternoon, only the towns of Arsal Al-Ward, Hawsh Arab and Jbaadin remained in rebel hands, said the commander who spoke to an Associated Press reporter on a government-led tour of the area. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. A pro-rebel activist in Qalamoun who uses the name Amer confirmed the military had taken the communities, but said Jibbeh and Jbaadin had never been in opposition hands.
The Britain based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that both communities had never been under rebel control. Instead, it appeared that pro-government fighters had pre-emptively seized the towns to ensure rebels would not take them. Now in its fourth year, Syria’s civil war has killed more than 150,000 people and taken on deep sectarian overtones. The armed opposition is dominated by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority.
Islamic extremists, including foreign fighters and Syrian rebels who have taken up hard-line Al-Qaeda-style ideologies, have taken on an increasingly prominent role among the opposition, dampening the West’s support for the rebellion to overthrow Assad. The government, meanwhile, has drawn heavily on the president’s heterodox Alawite sect for support. Christians and other minorities have largely either stayed on the sidelines or thrown their support behind the government.
Against that backdrop, Maaloula, located some 40 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of the capital and home to a large Christian population, serves as an important symbolic prize for the government. Those fighters included gunmen from the Al- Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, who abducted more than a dozen Greek Orthodox nuns from their convent during the fighting, fueling fears that hard-line Muslims were targeting Christians. The nuns were released unharmed in March. In exchange, the Syrian government reportedly released dozens of women from prison. During the government-led tour of the village yesterday, the toll of the past few months on Maaloula was clear, including to Christian sites.
It was not clear, however, whether the wreckage to Christian buildings was intentional, or whether the ancient sites were merely caught in the crossfire. Still, rebels from Qalamoun said that despite the loss of their strongholds, the area’s rugged geography meant that Syrian forces could not entirely cut opposition supply lines that extended from Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley, particularly from the Sunni border town of Arsal, to rural Damascus. “Arsal (begins) the biggest route to smuggle medicine and weapons and people into Syria, and this route is still working,” said Ammar Al-Hassan, a rural Damascus activist. “The regime and Hezbollah can’t touch it.” Meanwhile, the UN’s human rights chief yesterday condemned the “routine” use of torture in Syrian detention facilities, as a new report said victims were raped, beaten and had their teeth and toenails pulled out. “Our findings confirm that torture is being routinely used in government detention facilities in Syria, and that torture is also used by some armed groups,” UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay said. “In armed conflict, torture constitutes a war crime.
When it is used in a systematic or widespread manner, which is almost certainly the case in Syria, it also amounts to a crime against humanity.” The UN report, based on accounts by 38 survivors, detailed the systematic torture of men, women and children in the war-ravaged country.
A 30-year-old university student described how he was beaten, had his beard pulled out and his feet burned at an Air Force Intelligence facility where he was interrogated in 2012. In another session, “they pulled out two of my toenails with a plier,” he said. And a 26-year-old woman gave an account of being beaten, raped and having her teeth pulled out. “They called us prostitutes and spat in our faces,” said the woman, whose family rejected her after learning she had been raped.
Upon arrival at government detention facilities, the report said detainees were “routinely beaten and humiliated for several hours by guards in what has come to be known as the ‘reception party’”. Investigators also found that several armed groups, including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the al-Nusra Front, had used torture against men, women and children.
Human rights activists and medical workers seen to be affiliated with other armed groups were particularly vulnerable. “I urge the government and armed opposition groups in Syria to immediately halt the use of torture and ill-treatment, and to release all those who have been arbitrarily detained in conditions that clearly breach international human rights standards,” said Pillay.
She stressed the importance of bringing torturers to justice and providing treatment and fair compensation to the victims, and reiterated her call for Damascus to allow her office and other international bodies to monitor conditions in detention centers in the country. — Agencies
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