Massacre accusations have been leveled at Syrian government forces by opposition watchdog groups after a fierce offensive to retake a Damascus suburb. But with no independent observers on the ground it remains unclear what exactly happened in Daraya.
A gruesome video has emerged showing a man navigating a sea of bodies in what he says is a mosque complex in Daraya, a working class Sunni Muslim town of 200,000 located southwest of Damascus. Amid repeated calls of Allahu Akbar, the individual filming the scene proclaims there are “more than 150 martyrs in this mosque in Daraya so far.”
Blood is conspicuously absent in the dimly-lit room, as the bodies were evidently moved to the Abu Auleiman al-Darani mosque post mortem.
Anti-government activists claim many of the corpses bore the marks of sniper fire, while others had been shot "execution-style" in house-to-house raids.
Syria’s President Assad has denied all the accusations, saying that this “conspiracy” of efforts to press the regime will not be successful.
The video’s authenticity could not be independently verified, and the details of just what happened during the five-day offensive in Daraya remain sketchy at best.
The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), a network of activists on the ground in Syria, accused government troops of summarily executing people and burning their bodies. The LCC alleges that 400 people died in violence throughout Syria on Saturday alone, most of those deaths taking place in Damascus and its southern belt.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said 320 people had been killed throughout the five days of intense clashes in Daraya, with many allegedly dying in house-to-house raids on Saturday.
Syrian government newspaper Ath-Thawra reported on Sunday that the armed forces "cleared the town of Daraya of the remnants of armed terrorist groups which committed crimes that traumatized the citizens of the town and destroyed public and private property."
Despite the conflicting figures on the number of dead, their identities, and the circumstances in which they were killed, what remains clear is that rebel fighters have regularly been repelled in their attempts to reclaim lost ground on the southern outskirts of Damascus following a broader government offensive which successfully reclaimed the bulk of the capital by late July.
Daraya has become the focal point of this offensive to further drive rebels from the area, though fighting erupted on the outer edges of the capital as well. Government tanks were reportedly deployed on the Damascus ring-road in the southern neighborhoods of al-Lawwan and Hahr Aisheh, as fierce clashes continued unabated in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of the capital deep into Saturday night, Reuters reports.
Activists have described the battle of Daraya and greater Damascus as a new bid to crush "once and for all" the anti-government insurgency. The new government offensive appears to be working, as activists have admitted that many rebel forces had have had to resort to hit-and-run operations from their bases in the countryside upon being driven out of the capital and its urbanized environs.
The timing of the "massacre" reports is of no coincidence, believes Middle East expert and radio show host Kevin Barrett.
They come as the UN Security Council is scheduled to hold ministerial meeting on the humanitarian impact of the conflict on August 30.
“Right before this UN ministerial meeting coming on August 30 we have a big orchestrated PR event designed to sneer the government in Damascus and prod the West into intervening in Syria,” Barrett told RT.
He reiterated that in his belief much of the killing in the Houla massacre had been perpetrated by the rebels, warning that the “the same thing might be true this time.”
“We really need to resist this intense psychological warfare campaign which is mainly based on lies and distortions that’s being waged by the Western countries.”
The expert claims that the real target of Western forces in the Syrian conflict is to destabilize the country and make it a “nonviable state” such as with Iraq.
“They don’t want to stabilize Syria. They don’t want to bring peace to Syria. They want to break Syria up and make it a nonviable state,” he argued.
In Barrett’s opinion this is part of a wider US plan to bring the region and its energy resources under its control.
“It’s easier to be dealing with small states – that’s why they love all these Gulf sheikhdoms. Dealing with such small states is very-very easy. The US and the West have so much more leverage that way.”