Syrian Caves a Window Onto the Conflict

It takes a village, like Maaloula, to understand the complexities of Syria’s conflict, and the challenges it will face to recover and rebuild. By Tara Sonenshine

Sometimes it takes a village to understand a story and to see the complexities of the Middle East.  As I write, the Syrian government and the rebels are reportedly fighting it out in the village of Maaloula, 35 miles northeast of Damascus.  BBC News reports and other accounts suggest that the village could fall to the Syrian rebels, the Syrian government or remain a neutral, secular, unclaimed piece of real estate.

To understand Syria you have to grapple with how this scenic, archeologically rich village is now part of the wider fabric of Syrian society -- a cauldron of violence reflecting the divisions between Syrian Sunni Muslims, Christians, Alawites, Druze, Kurds and Islamists -- all trying to have a piece of the puzzle.

Five years ago, you could look up “8 Things to Do in Maaloula.” You could find a list of top Syrian hotels, restaurants and attractions on TripAdvisor’s website. It shows, among other things, the “caves” to be explored in Maaloula

But today, Maaloula, with its honey-colored mountain ridges, is a town under siege in a wider civil war that pits religion against religion, and has drawn the United States, Russia and the entire global community into a huge international debate over military action, chemical weapons and the future of American engagement in the Middle East.

At one point, Maaloula had 5,000 people. Most have fled -- some out of the country; others to the capital. It is one of the earliest centers of Christianity in the world -- a place where Aramaic was spoken -- the language of Christ. Maaloula is known for its beautiful churches, monasteries and statues, all cultural symbols of the ancient Syrian civilization. It is on the UNESCO list of proposed World Heritage sites. For years, Christians and Muslims lived side by side there but now there is little harmony between faiths.

The cultural dimensions of Maaloula are important not only for history, but for the present and future of Syria and the Middle East. Among the many casualties of war in Syria -- 100,000 lives lost -- are the lost pieces of museums, artifacts and art that have been destroyed, looted, shipped out of the country or simply buried under rubble. We don’t yet know how much of Maaloula’s ancient sites are still intact today. But what we do know is how important they are. Those pieces of history, as we have learned from Iraq, become part of how a nation rebuilds itself and recaptures its past. At the State Department, I worked with our education and cultural bureau to help secure Syrian artifacts by identifying them on lists of materials so that customs agents can spot the removal of treasures over borders.

Along with culture, there is geography. Maaloula is also considered strategically important for its proximity to Lebanon in the north, a supply route for arms to the rebels, and as a communications hub for the Syrian government. So the fight taking place there is a proxy fight for the larger question of who will rule Syria, and the degree to which the Iranian-Lebanese-Hezbollah factions will win or the Saudi-backed opposition rebels, both of which are suspected of being behind the arming of different groups in the conflict.

At stake now, of course, is the wider tension between the United States and Russia, which have been on opposite sides of arguments over Assad and now may end up as strange bedfellows in a bid to remove chemical weapons in Syria.

As always, caught in the crossfire of these debates will be ordinary people like the citizens of Maaloula. One can only imagine what their lives today are like, camped out in Damascus or existing in refugee camps in Lebanon or Turkey, Jordan or Iraq, dreaming of the day when Maaloula is again a tourist town and not a graveyard.

Let’s not forget the people of this story, the human toll of lost lives, lost sites, lost economies and a future that is still unfolding.

Tara Sonenshine is distinguished fellow at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs and former under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.