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stephen starr

Still image from video uploaded on social media website on April 21, 2013, shows dead bodies of people killed during conflict in what was reported by opposition activists to be in the Damascus suburb of Jdeidet al-Fadel.REUTERS TV/Reuters

In late 2010, after three-and-a-half years of living in Syria's capital, Damascus, I moved out to an apartment in the Damascus suburb of Jdeidet Artouz. If activist reports are to be believed, over the weekend this town was the scene of one of the worst massacres Syria has seen since protests began two years ago.

Located 15 kilometres southwest of Damascus, Jdeidet Artouz is divided by a dusty highway that continues further south to the Golan Heights. To the highway's north is Jdeidet al-Fadel, the poorer of the two districts; to the highway's south is Jdeidet Artouz al-Balad, home to middle class Iraqis who fled after the 2003 invasion of their country, as well as Druze, Alawite and Christian communities. Many young couples have moved out to Jdeidet Artouz from Damascus in recent years because rents and property were less expensive.

Jdeidet al-Fadel is the poor, working-class district of the town. There are no swimming pools, no shopping districts or restaurant plazas there. It was there that Syrian government troops launched a five-day campaign last Tuesday to wipe out rebel forces in the district. There, activists say, hundreds of people were killed over the past several days.

A couple of hundred metres to the northwest of those two settlements is a military barracks housing hundreds of officers and their families. The vast majority of residents there are Alawite – as is President Bashar al-Assad – and are not originally from the town. Instead, over the last four decades, many were drafted in from towns and villages hundreds of miles away in the mountains along the Syrian coast. They spoke with a different accent from the locals in Jdeidet Artouz and al-Fadel. They were outsiders.

Locals looked on this military and security community as a foreign force, but the Alawite officers and their families integrated, opening shops in the Christian district that sold, among other things, alcohol. They drove rundown military jeeps and Mercedes cars with blackened windows around the town for years. Locals knew who they were; there was a stable, if uneasy, peace.

When protests broke out in Syria in March, 2011, the security cars and the Alawite officers driving them were regarded as a new menace in the town. Each morning a set of two black Honda Accords snaked up and down every street in every neighborhood. Locals fetching groceries from the local shop, or bringing children home from school, were watched by unknown men behind black glass windows.

When protests began in the town in the summer of 2011, the stage was set for confrontation. Located close to important government military bases and a private airport, control of Jdeidet Artouz was a key goal for the Syrian regime. At first the regime felt, perhaps, that the large Christian, Druze and Alawite communities inhabiting the town would stop protests from taking place. Yet, from mosque steps on Fridays, men poured out calling for freedom and for the fall of the regime.

Last Sunday, Syrian state television broadcasted scenes of civilians, apparently from Jdeidet al-Fadel, speaking to a camera and remarking how they had lived in fear under the "armed gangs." They thanked the army for liberating their homes. Then images of government troops riding victoriously atop military vehicles through the town streets were broadcasted. There was no mention of any dead, although an activist I spoke to in the town said there was a military lockdown and that no one left their homes because snipers were stationed on rooftops across the town.

Then, late Sunday night a pro-government Facebook page claimed Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda-linked Islamist group, had lost 600 fighters in the Jdeidet al-Fadel battle. No mention was made of civilian deaths.

We don't know how many people died in the massacre uncovered on Sunday evening in Jdeidet al-Fadel; we'll probably never find out how many fighters or civilians or regime soldiers were killed. What is clear is that through brute force and violence, the Syrian regime has destroyed the delicate social fabric in the town and in many others like it across the country.