A massive explosion ripped through central Damascus today as tens of thousands of Syrians turned out across the country to peacefully protest against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The apparent target was a bus full of military police.
The contrast between the protests and the carnage in Damascus is a reminder that the struggle for Syria is now a two-front war. Though driven by unarmed citizens demanding that Mr. Assad leave power, there is an increasingly armed component.
The Free Syrian Army, made up of defectors from Assad's military, is now standing with protesters – and threatening to escalate the conflict if the Arab League observer mission fails to produce satisfactory results in the coming days.
Perpetrator still unclear
What really happened in Damascus today? Speculation is thick on the ground, hard facts about the perpetrator almost nil.
The government claimed the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber. Syrian State TV was quick to leap on the attack for propaganda purposes, carrying a montage of pictures of the carnage with ominous, minor-key music and the word "terrorism" emblazoned across the screen.
Opposition activists, meanwhile, insisted that they hadn't carried it out, and some even speculated the bombing was a false-flag operation carried out by the regime to make the opposition look bad.
That seems unlikely. But Assad's government has repeatedly sought to frame the uprising against his family's 40-year grip on power and the Baath Party he heads as the work of foreign agitators and terrorists – a carbon copy of the tactic used by Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, with limited success.
But in the case of Syria, the presence of Islamists who might drive the country's conflict in an overtly sectarian direction can't be ignored.
Syrians fought with Al Qaeda-aligned militants in Iraq, and the country's confessional balance – a Sunni majority, a significant Christian minority, and the minority Alawite sect that Assad belongs to dominating the upper echelons of the security services and the government – could prove explosive if the conflict drags on. Today's attack in Damascus followed an even deadlier blast in December,
In the late 70s and early 80s, Syrian Islamists waged a low-level insurgency against the government of Hafez al-Assad, the current president's father and predecessor. Dozens of officials and Army officers were assassinated, with Alawites – a heterodox Shiite sect – particularly targeted. The violence culminated in the Hama massacre of February 1982 almost exactly 30 years ago. The town was a bastion of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the elder Assad's forces swept in to Hama, and killed at least 10,000 residents in a scorched earth campaign that mostly targeted civilians.
Though there have been no massacres on that scale during the current uprising, tens of thousands of citizens have been detained and dozens of bodies have turned up later bearing signs of torture. The UN says that at least 5,000 Syrians have been killed since the uprising began last January.
While the situation in Syria looks more and like a civil war, the sheer numbers of people willing to take to the streets and protest, given the risks, is a reminder of the shaky ground the regime is resting on.
There were large protests in at least a dozen places in Syria today. Two Youtube videos of today's protest are below, the first from Idlib and the second from Damascus.