BEIRUT - The Syrian government has dispatched reinforcements including tanks and armored personnel carriers to a predominantly Christian village north of Damascus where rebels have clashed with regime troops this week, a monitoring group said Friday.
Opposition fighters led by an al-Qaida-linked rebel faction attacked the mountainside sanctuary of Maaloula on Wednesday, and briefly entered the village a day later before pulling out in the evening. The assault has spotlighted fears among Syria's religious minorities about the prominent role of Islamic extremists in the rebel ranks fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad's regime.
The government forces sent to Maaloula have taken up positions outside the village, which is still under the control of local pro-regime militias, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. He added that there were skirmishes Friday around the village, which is home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria - Mar Sarkis and Mar Takla.
The assault is being spearheaded by Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the most effective rebel factions and a group the United States has deemed a terrorist organization. The group includes Syrians as well as foreign fighters from across the Muslim world.
The Syrian government has tried to emphasize the role of foreigners fighting on the rebel side as part of its narrative that the Assad regime is battling a foreign-backed conspiracy.
In that vein, Syrian state television said Friday the government is offering 500,000 Syrian pounds ($2,800) for turning in a foreign fighter, and 200,000 pounds ($1,150) for information about their whereabouts or assistance in their capture.
As the fighting continued on the ground inside Syria, President Barack Obama's administration forged ahead in its efforts to win congressional backing for military strikes against Syria over a suspected chemical attack on Aug. 21 outside Damascus. The U.S. accuses the Assad regime of being behind the attack, while Syria blames the rebels.
Obama on Friday was expected to use the last day of the Group of 20 economic summit in Russia to continue his quest to scrounge up foreign support for armed action. He has had little public success so far, with only France willing to take part in any military response.
The prospect of a U.S.-led strike against Syria has raised concerns of potential retaliation from the Assad regime or its allies. On Friday, the State Department ordered nonessential U.S. diplomats to leave Lebanon over security concerns and urged private American citizens to depart as well.