By Ruth Sherlock, Carol Malouf in Beirut
The Christian community has tried to avoid taking sides in the civil war. In Aleppo, it recruited vigilantes from the Boy Scout movement to protect churches, but as the war moved into the city and spread across its suburbs they have begun to accept weapons from the Syrian army and joined forces with Armenian groups to repel opposition guerrillas.
“Everybody is fighting everybody,” said George, an Armenian Christian from the city. “The Armenians are fighting because they believe the FSA are sent by their Turkish oppressors to attack them, the Christians want to defend their neighbourhoods, Shabiha regime militia are there to kill and rape, the army is fighting the FSA, and the [Kurdish militant group] PKK have their own militia too.”
For the past six weeks up to 150 Christian and Armenian fighters have been fighting to prevent Free Syrian Army rebels from entering Christian heartland areas of Aleppo.
Last month the Syrian army claimed a ‘victory’ in removing FSA fighters from the historic Christian quarter of Jdeidah. But Christian
militia fighters told the Daily Telegraph it was they who had first attacked the FSA there. The FSA were hiding in Farhat Square in Jdeideh. The Church committees stormed in and cleansed the area. Then the Syrian army
joined us. They claimed the victory on State television,” said George, who like many Christian refugees is too scared to give his full name. “The rebels were threatening the churches.”
The area, defined by its boutique shops, narrow cobbled streets and the spires and cupolas of the Maronite, Orthodox and Armenian churches, had over the weeks become infiltrated with sniper positions and checkpoints, residents said.
“FSA snipers were on the rooftops and they were attacking the Maronite church and Armenian residents there,” said a former clergyman calling himself John, now in Beirut, who said he had witnessed the battle.
The battle for Aleppo has become bitter, with militant jihadist groups playing a more prominent role than in any other city.
It has become increasingly scarred by accusations of atrocities on both sides, most recently the mass killing of 20 regime troops, whose bodies were displayed on a video apparently uploaded to the internet by a rebel militia.
Residents of the city told The Telegraph that the city’s minorities feared that they would suffer the same fate as Christians in Iraq, who
were heavily targeted by the sectarian violence that erupted after the 2003 war.
“They are shouting ‘the Alawites to the graves and the Christians to Beirut,” said an Armenian mother of four who recently fled the city – a claim also made by several other Christian refugees.
John said that contrary to reports Aleppo’s minority groups and wealthy residents were not all regime supporters. But he said they felt they had to protect themselves from ‘peasant immigrants’ who were using the war to destroy the city’s sophisticated
“I am not in support of the government, but the FSA are all a bunch of thugs and thieves. I watched them steal from a textile
factory – they took everything; gas, materials, even the beading machines!”
Increasingly on the offensive, Syrian rebels killed at least 18 soldiers in a car bomb and ground attack on a military position in neighbouring Idlib province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
In Aleppo on Wednesday four Syrian Armenians were reported killed and 13 wounded in an ambush near the airport.
The new UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Thursday, in a last-ditch effort to rescue the country from civil war.
Any military intervention looked to be firmly off limits on Wednesday. Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, made clear that Western countries would not consider such action whilst Russia and China continued to oppose it.
Seeing little hope of change many Christians have already joined the hundreds of thousands who have fled the country. The UN High
Commission for Refugees said 253,000 Syrians were now registered with them.
Many Christians say they hold little hope of returning.