BEIRUT, Lebanon, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- Jihadist rebels fighting the Damascus regime in Syria's 3-year-old civil war are holed up in one of the country's most iconic historic sites, the 13th century Krak des Chevaliers castle built by the Crusaders.
There's an historical irony there since the hilltop fortress was built by another so-called army of God that battled Islamic forces for control of the Holy Land in medieval times.
But such historical twists cannot mask that regime artillery is pounding the famous fortress' massive stone walls and towers every day amid a buildup to what observers believe is a major battle for control of the countryside around the city of Homs 25 miles to the east and just north of the Lebanese border.
The Syrian war, which will move into its fourth year in March, has killed about 130,000 people by U.N. count, but it has also hit the country's 5,000-year historical heritage as well, including sites that have stood since the dawn of civilization.
"Archaeological sites in Syria are often on the front lines of conflict and are experiencing heavy damage," observed Emma Cunliffe of the Global Heritage Network.
The Lebanese daily Al Akhbar reports several hundred rebels are besieged inside the castle, which commands the roads in the strategic region between Homs and the Mediterranean port of Tartous -- just as it did when the castle, known as Qalaat al-Hush in Arabic, was rebuilt in its present form by the Knights Hospitaller.
The rebels, which Al Akhbar says includes a large contingent of Lebanese Salafists led by a seasoned fighter named Khaled al-Mahmoud, have held the Krak for several months despite heavy bombardment.
Most of the fighting has been around the nearby villages of al-Zara and al-Hosn. But now, Britain's Independent daily reports, regime forces are closing in.
This has triggered fears that the Syrian army, which has a propensity for relying on often indiscriminate airstrikes and artillery shelling in such confrontations, will inflict serious damage on the historic edifice.
The Independent said the castle was damaged by a Syrian airstrike and mortar fire last year and the Syrian government says it's eager to prevent further damage. The governor of Homs, Talal al-Barazi, has said the government is aware of Krak's historic significance and will do everything possible to avoid harming it, the newspaper said.
Much of the northern city, once Syria's commercial heart, is now in ruins after 18 months of fierce fighting there. The market was one of the world's oldest covered marketplaces.
The city's Ummayad Mosque, one of Syria's most famous, was badly damaged and its 11th century, 148-foot-high minaret was "totally destroyed" by tank fire, the U.N cultural organization UNESCO says.
The mosque itself was extensively damaged, its antique furnishings and intricately sculpted colonnades wrecked in piles of rubble on the tiled courtyard.
There have been reports of looting, including a box that purportedly contained a strand of the Prophet Muhammad's hair.
UNESCO had declared the mosque a World Heritage site, one of six in Syria. It says all are now "endangered."
In a recent report on the damage to Syria's historic sites, the Global Heritage Network detailed the many civilizations that made the country, the cultural and commercial crossroads between ancient Egypt, Arabia and Asia, a treasure house of antiquities.
"Numerous bronze-age civilizations left their successive marks, including the Babylonians, the Assyrians and the Hittites," it said.
"They, in turn were replaced by the Greeks, the Sasanians, the Persians, the Romans and the Arabs, many of whom chose Syrian cities as their capitals. The European Crusaders came and left some of the most impressive castles known, and the Ottoman Empire also made its mark.
"All these cultures co-existed and conflicted, forming something new and special, and found nowhere else in the world."