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Syria massacres seem to show slow, steady killing strategy

Bashar Assad's forces may be moving incrementally to avoid shocking the international community. But towns are watching the toll of quiet executions mount.

September 15, 2012|By the Los Angeles Times
  • Residents of Dariya, Syria, visit a mass grave where five long dirt mounds hold the bodies of more than 600 people. About 100 others are buried in a cemetery. Activists say government forces were responsible.
Residents of Dariya, Syria, visit a mass grave where five long dirt mounds… (Los Angeles Times )

DARIYA, Syria — As he hid from soldiers in a field next to his neighborhood, a young man watched as a cat wandered down a street. Suddenly, it was shot dead. That's when Zuhair noticed the sniper on a nearby roof.

But a father and son walking along the street didn't see the gunman, Zuhair said. The sniper lowered his head and peered through his scope.

He shot the boy first. As the man tried to grab his son, who looked to be about 10, he was shot as well.

The two are among a reported 700 victims of snipers, shelling and summary executions, most of them men, since forces loyal to President Bashar Assad stormed the Damascus suburb of Dariya in late August, one in a growing list of Syrian towns and villages that briefly enter the world's spotlight, only to be replaced by another one when a new mass killing is committed.

Unlike a massacre by government forces three decades earlier in the city of Hama, which left more than 20,000 dead in just three weeks and still haunts the country, the reported atrocities have been spread over months of bloodshed in Syria. That has led some to call the government campaign a kind of slow-motion Hama.

Late last year, as the government siege of the city of Homs was underway, activists began tweeting: "Homs 2011 = Hama 1982, but slowly, slowly." As the conflict becomes more bloody on both sides, the same can be said for the entire country.

"They killed them in one sweep [in Hama]; with us, it's in stages," said Um Hussam, a mother of five who runs a small convenience shop in an old neighborhood of Dariya. "We expected they would kill and terrorize people, but not to this … level of barbarity."

After videos of children's bodies emerged after a massacre of 108 people in the town of Houla in May, there was brief international outcry, and several Western countries expelled their Syrian ambassadors and diplomats. Less than two weeks later in the town of Qubair, 78 were killed and United Nation monitors were fired upon when they first tried to visit the village.

On Thursday, activists said 36 civilians had been executed in Yalda, a Damascus suburb.

Like the Hama massacre before, these mass killings are an effort not only to crush dissent but also to ensure that future generations don't think of revolting, said Muhammad Shihadeh, an activist in Dariya. He also sees a sinister motive in the relatively smaller toll in each mass killing.

"It was a smart tactic on the part of the regime so there wouldn't be a shock from the international community," Shihadeh said. "But we're seeing that the world has a very expansive red line."

The opposition estimates at least 27,000 have been killed, and the numbers are rising.

"It keeps getting worse. When we first went out in protests, they killed three, and then they began raiding homes and killed 10, and then they started killing more, until they came into Dariya and killed 700," said Abu Kinan, a resident and activist. "Maybe next time they come in, they will kill 1,000."

***

Dariya, a five-minute drive from the capital, had gained some level of independence in recent months, not through rebel force but as the government gradually withdrew its troops to fight elsewhere.

The city of more than 200,000 was home to some of the most famous peaceful acts of dissent early in the uprising, including giving roses to forces sent to attack demonstrators. Moreover, the rebels and activists here say they learned from the mistakes of other areas that declaring a region "liberated" would just invite a government offensive that they were ill-equipped to fight.

But rebel militias based in Dariya have been involved in some of the targeted operations against the government, including a recent attack on the nearby Mezze airport.

The shelling of Dariya began on a Monday in late August, on the second day of the Eid al-Fitr celebration. Free Syrian Army rebels in Dariya, aided by opposition militias from other suburbs, launched a weak defense, attacking tanks and armored vehicles with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

The following Friday, as the shelling worsened and the injuries surpassed 1,000, the rebels withdrew.

By that evening, the soldiers of the 4th Division, stationed in the mountains above the city and identified by a red band they wear on their left sleeves, had entered Dariya. The next day, they began systematic raids, pulling dozens of men from their homes and taking them to empty basements where they were summarily executed, according to activists' accounts and interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch. Others were killed by snipers on top of buildings.

Activist Abu Muawya had slept over at a friend's house and was awakened at 7 a.m. Saturday and told that soldiers were about to raid the neighborhood. He opened the second-floor window to jump out, but the soldiers were already spread throughout the street.

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