MAALOULA, Syria — From the debris-strewn front garden of the Safir Hotel, Syrian military commanders barked orders to troops taking cover in the smoke-shrouded maze of streets below.
"If you hear any movement, throw hand grenades immediately!" a general advised on his two-way radio as he peered at the battle unfolding like a distant video game at the bottom of the hill.
On Tuesday, Syrian forces were targeting the remnants of a rebel force in this historic town, long a center of Christian worship and pilgrimage.
Though most insurgents had long fled, a determined few remained well concealed in buildings and within the rubble, moving through tunnels and blasted-out passages. But they faced overwhelming force. Russian-made tanks pounded their positions while automatic-weapons fire rained down on them. Snipers posted on the bare hillsides trained their rifles on remaining rebel redoubts.
Maaloula, situated at the foot of a mountain gorge 40 miles northeast of Damascus, represents the latest in a string of government triumphs north of the capital in the strategic Qalamoun area, a swath of mountainous terrain along the Lebanese border. The offensive is meant in large part to shut off the infiltration of weapons and fighters from Lebanon, closing a back-door route to the capital and securing the nation's key north-south highway.
Opposition forces, who held sway in much of the rugged zone for 18 months or more, are reeling. Many rebel survivors have retreated to Lebanon or to pro-opposition terrain in the suburbs of Damascus, officials say. The relentless course of the battle here is another indication that President
Maaloula never had the strategic value of other nearby areas, such as the city of Yabroud to the north, which was recaptured by the military in March. But it possesses vivid symbolic importance. The Christian enclave has long been a signature site for Syria's diverse assemblage of faiths and ethnicities.
Assad's government has presented itself as a staunch defender of religious tolerance and minorities in the face of Islamic militants who make up some of the strongest rebel forces. Recapturing Maaloula helps reinforce that message.
The town is acclaimed as one of the few places where a version of Aramaic, said to be the language of Jesus, is still spoken and taught. Its ancient churches and monasteries are iconic.
Most of the 2,000 or so residents fled long ago. A group of 13 nuns abducted by Islamic rebels who overran the town last year has since been freed in a prisoner exchange.
One of the first tasks facing officials will be to determine the damage inflicted on Maaloula's historic churches and other Christian sites. Statues of Jesus and Mary that once looked down from twin ridges have been destroyed — whether by the rebels or government shelling is not clear.
St. Thecla monastery, from where the nuns were kidnapped last year, remains in a perilous zone. It was impossible on Tuesday to assess the damage. But crosses had been removed from the tops of St. Thecla and other churches, apparently by Islamic rebels. It seemed likely that the crosses and hillside statues will be easier to replace than other, more profound losses yet to be cataloged.
Up the hill from St. Thecla, the ancient Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus lay in ruins. The sturdy brick structure still stands, but shells have crashed through the dome, and much of the interior has been reduced to wreckage.
A piece of what appears to have been part of a painting of the two saints was found Tuesday amid the rubble; the image of one of them on horseback was crudely defaced, clearly a deliberate act.
Postcards, rosary beads, prayer books and other items from the gift shop were littered about the grounds. Jars of apricot preserves and bottles of wine made on the site were shattered in a storeroom. The wooden pews were smashed and covered with dust and debris. The altar appeared to have been demolished.
Syrian officials blame the rebels, but government shelling could also have caused much of the damage.
Christian clerics and historians fear that priceless medieval icons and other works of art may have been destroyed or looted and will never be recovered.
The Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, named for former Roman soldiers who were popular saints in medieval times, appears to have been a victim of its setting. It is just down the hill from the Safir Hotel, once a four-star hostelry for tourists and pilgrims, but more recently the base for Syrian rebels. The insurgents commandeered the hotel last year and stayed for months.
Syrian military shelling and fire in the battle to retake the hotel has transformed it into a ghostly ruin. Rebar juts from the concrete frames of what were once well-appointed rooms, and an interior staircase is now exposed to the elements. Exterior walls are pocked with holes. Government forces lounge in a lobby, littered with glass, concrete and other debris.
The hotel is now a base for units of the Syrian army, pro-government militiamen and a loyalist Shiite militia known as Liwa Abu Fadl al Abbas, whose ranks include many volunteers from Iraq. The army tries to coordinate their actions, but the process is not always smooth.
Commanders stood Tuesday in the garden of the hotel, directing forces in the streets about 150 yards below. Much of the fire seemed to be directed at a pair of homes close to a mosque, where remaining rebels appeared to be holed up.
"They're in that building," one commander told forces on the ground.
"Where did they disappear to?" asked another.
The shooting below was so intense that commanders worried about friendly fire casualties.
On Monday, three journalists for Al Manar, the media arm of Lebanon's Hezbollah group, which is allied with the Syrian government, were shot and killed entering Maaloula, adding to the death toll that has made Syria the most dangerous country for journalists. Authorities blamed rebels for the attack.
The Syrian military has suffered devastating losses in the three-year war, but the government does not release casualty figures. One army fighter, Abdul Qader Ahmad, 23, said two of his friends had been killed five days earlier outside the nearby town of Sarkha when a shell hit the tank they were riding in; he had only a minor wound above his left eye, requiring four stitches.
"I think the war will end soon, maybe in a year or so," said Ahmad, who said he hoped to return to his civilian life as a nurse-anesthesiologist in the northern city of Aleppo. "All the destroyed buildings can be rebuilt, though it will take time. But I think things will eventually be better than they were before."
A commander of the Shiite brigade, who goes by the nickname Abu Ajeeb, is called "uncle" by his young fighters. He opted to hold off on dispatching more combatants from the hotel grounds to the town below, judging that there was no need. His enthusiastic charges were devastated.
"Uncle, please let us go down!" implored one of his men, AK-47 at the ready.
Later, Abu Ajeeb said his fighters sometimes became frustrated because the army tended to allow escape routes for many rebels, apparently to avoid clashes and reduce army casualties.
"We don't want them to get away," he said. "We're here to kill them."