ANTAKYA, Turkey — Scores of mutilated, bloodied bodies have been found dumped on the streets and on waste ground on the outskirts of Damascus in recent days, apparently the victims of a surge of extrajudicial killings by Syrian security forces seeking to drive rebel fighters out of the capital and its suburbs.
The scale of the current violence in Damascus eclipses the far-better-publicized battle that is underway for control of Syria’s commercial capital, Aleppo, in the north, where gains by rebel forces have enabled journalists to reach the front lines and where government artillery and aerial bombardments are causing most of the civilian casualties.
Activists say the Damascus killings reflect a new government strategy to deter support for the opposition Free Syrian Army by punishing and intimidating civilians living in areas under rebel control. Videos posted online and accounts from residents point to summary executions occurring on a scale unprecedented since the start of the 17-month-old uprising against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
According to the Center for the Documentation of Violations in Syria, which lists victims of violence who have been identified, 730 civilians have been killed in Damascus this month and 529 in Aleppo, a disparity that has increased over the past week as the bodies have piled up in the Syrian capital.
Some of the deaths in the Damascus area have also been caused by shelling and helicopter bombardments, as the government pounds areas known to support the rebels. But most of the dead are civilians who have disappeared in the wake of offensives or have been seized at checkpoints and whose bodies have been discovered in groups of as few as a handful or as many as a several dozen, activists say.
In the most recent discoveries, 11 corpses were found Thursday in an apartment in Kfar Souseh, a day after 24 people were shot execution-style there, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Five were found in the Tadamon neighborhood. On Wednesday, several dozen bodies were discovered in the Qaboun suburb, tangled together along a roadside, covered in blood and with the throats slit, according to a graphic video posted on YouTube.
The details of the killings are impossible to confirm, and activists and human rights groups say they are finding it difficult to verify the circumstances of the grisly deaths being recorded daily on videos posted online. Most of the victims depicted are men, some of them elderly and many bearing torture marks, and all appear to have died either from bullet wounds to the head or by having their throats cut.
“Clearly, while all the attention has been focused on Aleppo, there has been an increase in military operations around Damascus, and the number of people being killed in those battles is much higher than what is happening in Aleppo,” said Nadim Houry, a researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, speaking from Beirut.
Shelling and raids by government forces have hindered researchers’ access to the sites where bodies are being found, Houry said. On Thursday, troops intensified an assault on the southwestern Damascus suburb of Darayya, a longtime opposition stronghold, hammering the area with artillery before raiding homes. The attack killed at least 15 people, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees network.
Houry also acknowledged that firsthand accounts of killings are rare. “Frankly, there are very few witnesses,” he said. “People are waking up and finding bodies on the side of the road.”
But though there have been some reports of revenge killings by rebels fighting in the name of the Free Syrian Army, the vast majority of incidents have followed government offensives against opposition strongholds, Houry said.
Activists say the latest wave of killings has taken place in residential areas that earlier were under rebel control. Most of those being killed are not Free Syrian Army fighters, who typically withdraw in the face of government offensives, but residents known to sympathize with the opposition, said Tariq Saleh, an activist with the Damascus Revolutionary Leadership Council.
“The regime is punishing the social support network of the Free Syrian Army, and the punishment is applied equally to those who are active in the revolution and also those who are just living there,” he said. “The point is to punish people in the hot spots and also to give a lesson to people in other areas.”
Although the government has controlled the heart of Damascus since the uprising began, the city’s suburbs quickly embraced the protest movement and later the armed rebellion, leaving the seat of Assad’s power encircled by restive, angry communities that appeared earlier in the summer to be threatening his hold on power.
A surge of fighting last month saw the thinly spread and heavily outgunned rebels briefly assert their presence in several city neighborhoods, including Midan, which hugs the ancient walls of the Old City, and upmarket Mezzeh, home to embassies and government offices. Days later, a bombing in the center of Damascus that killed four senior military officials prompted optimism within the opposition that the Assad regime was crumbling, as well as a wave of attacks by rebel fighters to expand their control into new areas around the city.
But the government has since systematically moved to reassert its authority, with its forces pushing beyond the city limits even to neighborhoods that the rebels had controlled for months. Free Syrian Army fighters have been forced to withdraw from some of their staunchest strongholds, such as Douma and Darayya, and have fled from areas newly conquered after the offensive last month, such as al-Tal to the north and Jdeidat Artouz to the southwest, according to rebel commanders.
And as they withdraw, the killings occur. In the small community of Jdeidat Artouz, 83 bodies have been found strewn around town since government forces retook the area this month, according to Abu Aasi, an activist there with the Local Coordination Committees.
In the nearby suburb of Qatana, about 60 bodies were found last week at a garbage dump, the victims’ hands bound behind their backs, their contorted death throes captured on another graphic video but still not fully explained.
Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut contributed to this report.