Damascus Suburb Massacre Clouds Move Toward Truce


A mass killing in a Damascus suburb left at least 25 people dead, according to reports that emerged Wednesday—a day before Syria’s government is expected to decide whether to sign off on a brief cease-fire—offering a grim prognosis for any negotiated halt in Syria’s violence.

Residents, rebel fighters and the government all described the killings—which came during raids on two adjacent buildings in Douma, a suburb northeast of the capital—as a massacre. The government blamed an Islamist rebel fighting group. Rebels and residents in the city said pro-government thugs and security forces had carried out the late Tuesday killings in Douma, an opposition hub repeatedly targeted by government forces.

The conflicting accounts, not unusual in the haze of Syria’s bloody and complicated conflict, came as the international diplomatic envoy trying to broker a brief cease-fire in the country said Wednesday that Syria’s government and some rebel factions had agreed to the truce.

Damascus has expressed its support for a truce during the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, which starts Thursday and lasts three or four days, said Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations-Arab League Special Representative for Syria. “Other factions in Syria that we were able to contact, heads of fighting groups, most of them also agree on the principle of the cease-fire,” he said in Cairo, according to news reports.

Syria’s foreign ministry later said Syria’s government would announce its “final position” on Thursday.

The U.N. Security Council backed Mr. Brahimi’s initiative in a nonbinding press statement Wednesday. Members including Russia—Syria’s main ally on the council—”welcome the important and timely initiative” and “called upon all regional and international actors to use their influence on the parties concerned to facilitate the implementation of the cease-fire and cessation of violence.” Significantly, the statement held Syria’s government primarily accountable—”as the stronger party”—for enforcing a truce.

The last internationally brokered cease-fire in Syria, led by former special envoy Kofi Annan, collapsed after holding for a few days in April. That cease-fire—which called for a simultaneous halt in fighting—tempered violence for about a month before fighting surged and spread across the country. Both sides accused each other of using the temporary lull in violence to regroup. Syria’s government said rebels began to amass weapons at the time.

Since then, the rebels grouped under the Free Syrian Army have grown into a more sophisticated insurgency. But they are fractured across Syria into localized fighting units. That makes negotiating with the growing number of rebel leaders more task than before, people involved in the U.N. and Arab diplomatic effort say. Few rebel groups are willing to entertain a cease-fire, these people say.

The number of groups tallying the toll of Syria’s conflict has dwindled as the pace of killings picked up. The United Nations stopped its count in August. One widely cited tally comes from a U.K.-based opposition group called the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which this week said 34,000 people have been killed.

Douma, a majority Sunni town about seven miles northeast of Damascus, has seen multiple offensives by the Syrian army, including one over the summer.

One resident reached briefly in Douma said pro-regime thugs, known colloquially as shabeeha, and security forces were behind the latest killings there. Another resident, an activist, said they targeted civilian homes.

“There was no reason for this massacre. The fighters weren’t even in the vicinity,” said a man who gave his name only as Mahmoud.

By nightfall, Douma was hit with a barrage of mortars, rockets and artillery from government forces stationed on the outskirts of town, said activists from the opposition’s Local Coordination Committees. They said a total of at least 40 people, including what they said were 30 in the alleged massacre, have been killed there since Tuesday.

Separately, at least four people were killed and 11 wounded in a car bomb in the neighborhood of Tadamoun on the south side of Damascus, Syrian state media said. The area, which is adjacent to a Palestinian refugee camp, is among the most volatile in the capital. Photos released by Syrian state media showed an incinerated bus purportedly hit in the bombing.

Syria’s government blamed Tuesday’s killings in Douma on “terrorist armed groups,” the term it usually uses to refer to antiregime rebels. In a letter to the U.N. Security Council and other U.N. bodies, Syria’s foreign ministry said a rebel group known as Liwa al-Islam, or the Islam Brigade, was responsible for massacring 25 people including women, children and elderly people. The government identified by name what it said were the six affected families; the names were different than those identified by rebels.Syria’s foreign ministry demanded the international groups take a stand against the massacre. It said the killings—like previous massacres this year in Homs, Hama and the Damascussuburbs—were carried out by the rebels to discredit the government ahead of U.N. Security Council deliberations over Syria, according to the letter, which was cited by Sana state news agency. The Syrian foreign ministry also said that no members of the army or security forces were present near the site of the massacre, adding this was proof of the rebels’ culpability.