BEIRUT — Syrian troops launched an offensive Monday against rebel-held positions on hills overlooking a mainly Christian village as they moved to regain control of the ancient community near the capital, Damascus, activists said.
The battle for Maaloula, has stoked fears among Syrian Christians that the alternative to President Bashar Assad’s regime — which is made up mostly of Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam — would not tolerate minority religions.
Such concerns have helped Assad retain the support of large chunks of Syria’s minority communities, including Christians, Alawites, Druze, and ethnic Kurds. Most of the rebels and their supporters are Sunni Muslims.
Maaloula, about 40 miles northeast of Damascus, had until recently been firmly under the regime’s grip despite sitting in the middle of rebel-held territory.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighters from the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front and the Qalamon Liberation Front still control Maaloula. But the troops shelled suspected rebel positions on the hills surrounding the area in an apparent bid to isolate the opposition forces in the village.
Assad warned in an interview broadcast Monday on CBS that there will be retaliation against the United States for any military strike against Syria in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons.
‘‘You should expect everything. Not necessarily from the government,’’ Assad said when asked to elaborate, an apparent reference to the possibility the regime could unleash allied militant groups such as the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. He added that the United States would ‘‘pay the price if you are not wise with dealing with terrorists.’’
Assad also denied that he was behind the Aug. 21 chemical attack near Damascus that the United States says has killed at least 1,429 people. He said his soldiers were ‘‘in another area’’ at the time and noting that no evidence has been presented.
Protests against the threatened US military strike continued in the region Monday. About 200 Jordanian activists demonstrated in Amman, chanting ‘‘America is the head of snake.’’
It was the biggest Jordanian anti-US gathering since President Obama threatened a ‘‘limited’’ strike on Syrian targets.
A similar protest last week drew only a couple of dozen activists.
Monday’s protest was planned by youth movements affiliated with Marxist and leftist groups, which are usually fiery critics of Washington because they regard its Mideast policy as biased in favor of Israel.
The demonstrators drew parallels between Obama and former president George W. Bush, calling both ‘‘warmongers.’’
Several dozen Jordanian police officers were on guard near the heavily fortified embassy. The protesters later left peacefully.
In Lebanon last week, the State Department ordered nonessential US diplomats to leave the country over security concerns and urged private American citizens to depart as well.
Dozens of people protested outside the US Embassy in Beirut on Saturday, carrying placards reading ‘‘No War,’’ and ‘‘Hands off Syria.’’
Rebels, who seized control of Maaloula on Saturday, said in a video that they will pull out after having achieved their objective of blowing up an army post there ‘‘that was used to harm Muslims.’’
Two nuns also appeared in the video, saying they were well treated by the rebels.