Government forces backed by fighters from the Lebanese Shi’a movement Hezbollah retook Maaloula, north of Damascus, on Monday, the latest in a series of advances against rebels in the Qalamoun mountains area near Lebanon.
Assad’s visit on Easter Sunday was a rare appearance outside the capital and comes after officials and allies in Lebanon and elsewhere have voiced increasing confidence the threat of the leader is secure in his position.
During the trip to Maaloula, Assad inspected Mar Sarkis—a Greek Orthodox monastery dating to the fourth century—and damage caused to it “at the hands of terrorists,” state news agency SANA said, using the government’s customary term for the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad.
It said he also inspected the Mar Thecla monastery. Islamist fighters, some from the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, had taken over part of the town in December and held several nuns captive until releasing them in March in a prisoner-exchange deal.
Pictures posted on SANA’s website showed Assad, dressed in a beige blazer, waving and examining antiquities as he toured the area with church officials.
Syria’s three-year-old conflict has killed over 150,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.
Assad’s government has portrayed itself as the best protection for the country’s minorities against a rebellion dominated by Sunni Muslims in which hard-line Islamists have taken a leading role.
Assad is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’a Islam.