United Nations monitors arrived in the west Syrian village of Qubair Friday to find the community deserted but with signs of a major bloodbath having taken place, suggesting a major cover-up by Syrian forces may have been attempted.
"You could smell dead bodies and you could also see body parts in and around the village," UN spokeswoman Sausan Ghosheh said.
The apparent attempt to conceal evidence marks a turning point in the way the perpetrators in Syria conduct their business. They clearly have been made aware that lines of bodies of women and children, showing their fatal wounds for all to see, have only served to unite the international community in opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But not everything could be hidden.
BBC correspondent Paul Danahar, one of two journalists accompanying the UN team, said he found body bits in several places "and someone had tried to mop the blood up by pushing it into the corner."
"What we didn't find were any bodies of people," Mr. Danahar said.
As well, at least seventeen people, including 10 women, were killed overnight Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The killings occurred in southern Syrian town of Deraa, where the uprising against Mr. al-Assad erupted 15 months ago
Meanwhile, anti-regime activists from the Qubair area had sent gruesome videos of lots of bodies to journalists and posted many of the scenes online. They said a gang of thugs from nearby Alawi villages had entered the community after several hours of shelling by Syrian forces. The shabiha, as the thugs are known, were said to have stabbed or shot remaining civilians at close range, then set fire to many of the bodies.
Social media has made life more difficult for the shabiha, but hiding the evidence and removing the eyewitnesses will make it harder for the international community to make its case to get rid of Mr. al-Assad.
Mr. Danahar said that a man from a nearby village had told him a pickup truck had come Thursday and taken the bodies away. Such an attempt to conceal the evidence would explain why Syrian forces prevented UN monitors from arriving at the village Thursday – even shooting at their vehicle – as time was needed to clean up the mess.
"This has basically been a scorched-earth policy by whoever this was – they've killed the people, they've killed the livestock, they've left nothing in the village alive," Mr. Danahar said.
"Everyone immediately assumes the worst," said Mohamed Marandi, a professor of political science from the University of Tehran currently at the American University of Beirut. "The Iranians believe massacres like this one are made to look like the regime carried them out."
Western media, as well as the media of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, "are very quick to blame Assad," Prof. Marandi said. "I think all of their governments simply want to see Assad overthrown."
That may be, but the fact that UN monitors this week were impeded by regular Syrian forces, coupled with a removal of evidence in Qubair, paints the most damning picture yet of a regime pulling out all the stops in its determination to survive.
Of course, in an era of social media, it's almost impossible to conceal all the evidence. And what the evidence shows is an increasingly sectarian conflict, pitting Alawis against Sunni Muslims.
"It's hard to say whether the Syrian regime is preparing a fallback plan of an Alawite mini-state," said Tony Badran, a Lebanese fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. But what is clear, he said, is that "Assad is pursuing a policy of Alawite inner consolidation."
"By arming Alawite villages and using them as launching pads for attacks against Sunnis, as he did in Houla and al-Qubair … Assad is hardening the sectarian boundaries and implicating the entire Alawite community in the murder of Sunnis, further bonding its fate to his," he explained.
Indeed, a Bosnia-like conflict is beginning to unfold. And, as in Bosnia, one side has been getting more weapons than the other. Despite an international arms embargo, Russia and Iran continue to supply the Assad regime. More recently, Saudi Arabia , Qatar and Turkey are aiding Islamist elements in the opposition, while fighters from Salafist jihadi communities around the Sunni world have joined the opposition ranks in Syria, as many like them did during the conflicts in Bosnia and in Afghanistan.
All this is the result of depicting Mr. al-Assad as an Alawi maniac who has to go, said Prof. Marandi, and of waging war against Iran on the backs of the Syrian people.
"If the goal is a political solution, then you give the guy a chance to prove his political reforms," he said. "But the Saudis, Qataris and the Americans want no part of that."
The trouble is: Removing Mr. al-Assad won't solve the problem either.
"The departure of Assad would only remove the figurehead of the minority ruling regime," said Vali Nasr, dean-elect of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "It will not open the door for a broad-based democratic environment in Syria immediately, in which Alawites and Sunnis will be happy with the outcome of an election."
"The international community keeps saying 'Assad should go, Assad should go,'" noted the Iranian-born Dr. Nasr. "But the Alawites will say, 'If he goes, if we hand over power, what's going to happen to us?' Because there is no satisfactory answer to that question, they're not going to give up power."
With a report from Reuters
Editor's Note: Tony Badran's comments in this article were misattributed in an earlier version of this story.