DAMASCUS // For a rather non-descript town of drab cement block buildings on the southern outskirts of Damascus, Daraya in two short months acquired a significance far exceeding its size or the apparent ordinariness of its neighbourhoods.
Until the start of last week’s all-out assault by regime loyalists, which culminated with the alleged massacre of at least 300 people, the community took up the task of governing themselves – a highly emblematic piece of defiance against a regime that has long warned chaos and Islamic extremism would engulf areas outside of its strict control.
Rather than sliding into anarchy after security forces withdrew entirely from the town this summer, Daraya had instead been run with a certain quiet efficiency by opposition activists and volunteers drawn from the town’s 200,000 or so population.
There was no state police in the area, but traffic flowed freely and residents reported little crime. Modest rebuilding projects to repair damage from previous army operations had been carried out, paid for by local donations.
Stores and wood workshops were open, an independent community newspaper was being published and volunteer street cleaners swept and washed down roads. People even queued politely at the local petrol station.
With no security forces on hand to make arrests, activists would stand at major intersections and hand out leaflets designed to educate residents on the key principles of the revolution, as drawn up by committees of local men and women.
The leaflets said there must be equality between all religious and ethnic groups in the new Syria and stressed the importance of ensuring justice and rejecting revenge in dealing with regime officials. They also spelt out that with new freedoms would come enormous responsibilities and duties for every citizen, including caring for the environment and conserving scarce water resources.
Daraya was one of a growing number of places living on the fraying edge of central authority in Syria, but its slide out of the government’s grasp was made all the more remarkable by its proximity to the very centre of power.
Rather than being some outlying village far from Damascus, the town is little more than 5 kilometres away from the capital’s upmarket Mezze embassy district.
The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) sought to keep a low profile in the area. It did not set up checkpoints, fearing it would only bring about a quick, violent response from regime forces. Still, it grew in strength, boasting hundreds of fighters and according to one local activist, perhaps up to 3,000.
That force had proven capable of pushing out police and more lightly armed regime security units earlier this year. Afterwards, the Daraya police station lay ransacked and abandoned, the municipal offices shut.
Without government security forces present in Daraya, the town was poised to become a key staging ground for a renewed assault on Damascus by rebel groups after their attempt last month was beaten down.
Free to move inside Daraya’s urban centre and through the farmland at its edges – Daraya was once famed for its grapes – the insurgents established ties with the residents of the densely populated, working class sprawl that forms southern Damascus and reaches in to the very heart of the capital.
That range enabled Daraya’s rebels to coordinate their activities with militants in other key urban battlegrounds such as Nahar Aisha, Kafa Susa and Qadam. If FSA units are to replicate in Damascus the assault their fellow fighters have mounted in the northern city of Aleppo for the last month, these districts will have a major role to play.
Crucially, the northern edge of Daraya borders the Damascus military airport, where the regime detains thousands of prisoners, deploys combat helicopters and, in nearby fortified compounds, houses members of the loyalist officer corps.
Given the strategic and political significance of rebel-controlled Dayara, it was then probably just a matter of time before government units moved against it in force. Even activists and residents of the town understood that, saying days before the start of last week’s assault that it was a matter of when, not if, the regime would try to retake control of the town.
They even acknowledged that the lightly armed FSA would not be able to repel a much more powerful force of army units loyal to the regime. And indeed, their prediction came true.
It started last Tuesday night, when the town was sealed off and then battered by shellfire from a safe distance for three days, the explosions echoing throughout Damascus. Then hundreds of soldiers backed by heavy artillery, helicopter gunships and tanks moved in.
State-run media said that government forces had been successful in “eliminating” terrorists – its term for armed rebel groups such as the FSA and their supporters. It gave no figure for the dead, saying only that it was “large”.
“Our heroic armed forces cleansed Daraya from remnants of armed terrorist groups who committed crimes against the sons of the town and scared them, and sabotaged and destroyed public and private property,” declared Sana, the official state news agency.
Activists gave a stark account of the military operation, saying more than 300 bodies had been found on Saturday and yesterday, many of them apparently victims of execution-style killings by gunshot at close range.
Videos posted online yesterday showed bodies lined up for burial in a mass grave, and spread out in pools of blood in dark basements. The Local Coordination Committees (LCCs), a network of grassroots opposition activists, issued a statement saying Daraya has been subjected to the worst massacre since the start of the uprising 17 months ago. Neither the government’s account or that of activists could be independently verified.
Regardless of exactly how the blood was shed, activists who lived inside the town insisted even before last week that their revolution would not be crushed by military power.”What we are saying to the regime is, ‘you destroy, we build, you destroy again, we will build again’,” a prominent female dissident from the town had said.
“That is our revolution and that is why it will succeed in the end.”