BEIRUT (AP) — Al-Qaida-linked rebels launched an assault on a regime-held Christian mountain village in the densely populated west of Syria and new clashes erupted near the capital, Damascus, on Wednesday — part of a brutal battle of attrition each side believes it can win despite more than two years of deadlock.
In the attack on the village of Maaloula, rebels commandeered a mountaintop hotel and nearby caves and shelled the community below, said a nun, speaking by phone from a convent in the village. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
With the world focused on possible U.S. military action against Syria, there were new signs of fragmentation in rebel ranks, with a small group of jihadis from Russia announcing it has broken away from an umbrella group known as Jabhat al-Nusra.
The Syria conflict, which began with a popular uprising in March 2011, has been stalemated, and it’s not clear if U.S. military strikes over the regime’s alleged chemical weapons use would change that. President Barack Obama has said he seeks limited pinpoint action to deter future chemical attacks, not regime change.
Obama has been lobbying for international and domestic support for punishing Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, which the U.S. says fired rockets loaded with the nerve agent sarin on rebel-held areas near Damascus before dawn on Aug. 21, killing hundreds of civilians.
Obama has asked Congress to authorize the use of force, with a vote not expected before the week. Meanwhile, he has won little international backing for action. Among major allies, only France has offered publicly to join the U.S. in a strike.
France’s Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault also made a passionate appeal for intervention in Syria, placing the blame for a chemical attack on Assad and warning that inaction could let him carry out more atrocities.
Ayrault addressed the French National Assembly at the beginning of a debate on the wisdom of a French military response. Wednesday’s debate ended without a vote — since President Francois Hollande can order a military operation without one — but it was part of his government’s delicate dance to rev up support at home for an unpopular intervention.
While the U.S. and the French weigh possible strikes, the fighting in Syria grinds on.
On Wednesday morning, rebels from the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group launched the assault on predominantly Christian Maaloula, some 60 kilometers (40 miles) northeast of Damascus, according to a Syrian government official and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group.
At the start of the attack, an al-Nusra fighter blew himself up at a regime checkpoint at the entrance to the village, said the Observatory, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists.
The explosion was followed by fighting between the rebels and regime forces. Eventually, the rebels seized the checkpoint and disabled two tanks and an armored personnel carrier, the Observatory said. At least eight regime soldiers were killed in the fighting, the group said.
The nun said the rebels had taken over the Safir hotel atop a mountain overlooking the village and where shelling from there. “It’s a war. It has been going from 6 a.m. in the morning,” she said from her convent.
The said the convent houses 13 nuns and 27 orphans. She said around 80 people from the village had come to the convent for safety.
A Syrian government official confirmed the assault and said the military was trying to repel the rebels. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements.
Maaloula is a mountain village with about 2,000 residents, who are among a tiny group in the region that still speaks a version of Aramaic, the ancient language of biblical times also believed to have been spoken by Jesus.
The French debate offered a preview of the challenges the Obama administration faces when the U.S. Congress debates Syria next week.
The French government is in a particularly difficult situation, with many opposition party members claiming that the Socialist president is merely acting as a lapdog for the U.S. In what a possible sign of budding support for an intervention, officials from countries neighboring Syria who met Wednesday in Geneva did not express explicit opposition to any military action.
Ayrault was careful to say that his certainty about the facts of the attack comes from French sources. But he mentioned for the first time a death toll of nearly 1,500 — which is around what the Americans have cited.
“The Syrian regime carries the entire responsibility” for the attack, said Ayrault. “Not to react would be to send a terrible message to Bashar Assad and to the Syrian people: Chemical weapons can used tomorrow again, against Damascus, against Aleppo, maybe even in a bigger way.”
Ayrault said a punitive military response would help shift the balance in a 2 ½-year-old civil war — which was tipping in favor of Assad — and was the only way to convince the Syrian leader that he must go to the negotiating table.
Many in the opposition have called for a vote in the French parliament, even though Hollande’s administration could win one since his party holds a comfortable majority.
Conservative French lawmakers have also said an attack without a U.N. resolution is risky, evoking the Iraq war when France pointedly refused to join the U.S.-led invasion without Security Council support. During Wednesday’s debate, Christian Jacob, president of the right-leaning UMP party, criticized Hollande for ceding France’s independence to the Americans.
He said France’s guiding principle should be: “always allied with the United States, never falling into line.”
Syria’s parliament speaker sent a letter to his French counterpart ahead of Wednesday’s debate, urging lawmakers not to make any “hasty” decisions. Syrian lawmakers sent a similar letter to Britain ahead of a parliamentary vote there that rejected military action against Syria.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of Assad’s most vocal supporters, warned the West against taking any one-sided action in Syria.
In an interview late Tuesday, Putin told The Associated Press that Russia “doesn’t exclude” supporting a U.N. resolution on punitive military strikes against Syria if it is proved that Damascus used poison gas on its own people. Still he questioned the proof released by Britain, the United States and France as part of their efforts to build international support for a military strike.
Any proof needs to go before the U.N. Security Council, Putin told the AP. “And it ought to be convincing. It shouldn’t be based on some rumors and information obtained by special services through some kind of eavesdropping, some conversations and things like that.”
He did say, however, that Russia had frozen new shipments to Syria of a missile defense system.
On Tuesday, the White House won backing for military action from two powerful Republicans — House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and House majority leader Eric Cantor.
In Syria, the Al-Baath newspaper, the mouthpiece of the country’s ruling Baath party, branded American lawmakers who backed military action against Syria as “advocates of war and terrorism.”
“When the Obama administration seeks a broader mandate from Congress, which it basically does not need, this means that it prepares itself for what is bigger and more dangerous,” the paper said in an editorial Wednesday.
DiLorenzo reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem, Lori Hinnant, Sylvie Corbet and Jamey Keaten in Paris, John Daniszewski, Lynn Berry and Vladimir Isachenkov in Novo-Ogaryovo, Russia, John Heilprin in Geneva and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.