Published: January 26, 2012
HARASTA, Syria — On a tour byobservers through the restless suburbs of Damascus, the stops on Thursday were anxious, brief and few.
In Irbeen, less than 10 miles from the capital, the observers hopped out of their heavily guarded convoy to examine two bodies of victims of recent violence that were lying in the street, then raced off a few minutes later as a group of protesters approached. In their rush, they were not able to look at three other bodies, an observer later said.
Later, they swept into the suburb of Harasta, where soldiers lined the entry road, taking up positions that suggested momentary control. Some sat on the sidewalk, and others milled about outside a store.
The streets emptied as the observers arrived. Their security guards drew their guns and searched the rooftops before the Arab League delegation inspected a cache of captured weapons in a house, including assault rifles and ammunition, as well as the opposition flag.
Afterward, they drove back to their hotel, having witnessed little of what is occurring in the neighborhoods that are posing a sharp and growing challenge to the government’s rule.
Arab League observers and government officials said on Thursday that a lengthier tour in Harasta, Irbeen and nearby Douma would have been impossible because antigovernment protests had become routine and gunmen, including many allied with the protesters, were attacking the security services with growing strength.
“We can’t go into certain neighborhoods, like Douma,” said one member of the security team guarding the observers. “We will be killed.”
The truncated visit also revealed the limitations of the observer mission, as the conflict shifted from frequently deadly confrontations between protesters and the government to clashes between armed groups and security forces.
Many observers said they felt more vulnerable after a recent report by the head of their mission, Lt. Gen. Muhammad Ahmed al-Dabi, that was perceived, at least by the Syrian government, as casting equal blame on opposition gunmen for the violence in the country. As a result, the observers seemed especially reliant on the government’s security as they traveled on Thursday. They did not meet with any opposition activists, not even one with whom they had scheduled an appointment so that the activist could give the observers a list of people detained by security forces.
An observer, Jaafar Kibeida, one of the mission’s leaders and a former Sudanese diplomat, said the activist would not have been able to visit them, surrounded as they were by the government’s army. For weeks, Mr. Kibeida said, the observers had repeatedly sought out opposition figures as they made their visits.
“People are more furious,” Mr. Kibeida said “The mood has changed.”
A visit to Douma — where the observers seemed to be most needed — was out of the question. Over the last week, the army and the security services have tried to rout hundreds of opposition gunmen who were controlling parts of the town.
After cutting off electricity and cellphone service, the government began storming Douma on Thursday, activists said, arresting hundreds of people during house-to-house searches before pulling back to the outskirts at night.
An activist in Douma, who gave his name as Muhammad, said the town had been considered “liberated” but indefensible. Though about 500 fighters were protecting Douma, Muhammad said, they could not guard all its dozens of entrances.
”It was like hell in Douma,” he said.
Fierce fighting continued on Thursday in Hama, in central Syria, where activists said the bodies of at least 23 men executed by the security forces had been discovered. The report, by the opposition Local Coordination Committees, could not be confirmed. The group posted a video of the bodies of men it said had been found in the Bab Qibli area, including several victims whose hands or feet were bound and who appeared to have bullet wounds to the head.
The Syrian state news agency, Sana, said that security forces had clashed with an “armed terrorist group” in Hama, arrested several people and killed “many others.” The news agency said that the authorities had seized explosives, remote detonation devices and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers.
The observers’ visit on Thursday started with the longest stop of the day, at the office of the governor of the Damascus countryside, Hussein Makhlouf, who conceded that armed gunmen “controlled some areas.” The gunmen gained that control, he said, after President Bashar al-Assad’s government had kept its promise to the Arab League and withdrew tanks from cities.
The meeting continued behind closed doors, where a police official told the observers that opposition fighters had spent two days trying to attack a police station in Irbeen, at one point, using a bulldozer, according to Mr. Kibeida, the observer.
“The situation was not good for us to go today,” he said.