Damascus bombings prompt warnings of Iraq-style insurgency

Yesterday's bombings in Damascus were the largest since the uprising began. The US and others are sounding an alarm about a particularly worrisome turn in the conflict.

Bassem Tellawi/AP
Syrian gather in front of a damaged military intelligence building where two bombs exploded, at Qazaz neighborhood in Damascus, Syria, on Thursday, May 10.

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Yesterday's bombing of a Syrian government intelligence compound in Damascus, the largest terrorist attack since the uprising began, has the United Nations, the US, and other backers of the opposition worried that the formerly peaceful protest movement is transforming into an armed insurgency that evokes comparisons to Iraq.

No group has claimed responsibility for the two bombings, which killed 55 people and wounded almost 400, according to The New York Times. The Syrian government blamed terrorists, as it has in most past bombings, while the opposition accused the regime of setting up the bombing to frame it, as it too has done in the past. But as the Monitor and other outlets have reported, there is growing evidence that jihadist groups have infiltrated the country and joined the fight against President Bashar al-Assad and his regime.  

The New York Times reports that Syrian members of the opposition have noticed a rise in murmurings about jihad and the number of non-Syrians on the battlefield. Analysts have been tracking the uptick in discussion on jihadi websites about going to fight in Syria, and Iraqi officials say that jihadis in their country have been moving west, toward Syria.

The progression of the uprising is drawing comparisons to the earliest phases of insurgency in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and northern Mali – "where a radicalized domestic core of fighters, eventually supplemented by foreigners and veterans of other jihadi conflicts, gradually swelled into a dangerous, anarchic insurgency" – the Times reports

The UN Security Council condemned yesterday's attacks "in the strongest terms" and "reaffirmed that terrorism in all its forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security, and that any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation," according to Reuters. The reference to motivation is possibly a warning to the opposition that it will be considered responsible for any violence it perpetrates, even if it is first provoked by the regime.

Bloomberg reports that events like yesterday's bombing pose a challenge to US support for the opposition.

The Syrian opposition has begun adopting the tactics of an armed insurgency such as suicide bombings, which can’t be condoned, said two United Nations diplomats. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to comment. That shift is making it harder for the US and its allies to keep the blame focused on the Assad regime for the violence, which persists despite a UN cease-fire agreed to by both sides in the conflict.

“America is not going to want to have its fingerprints on car bombs in Damascus,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Middle East program at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. “America is very careful about this because they don’t want to end up supporting terrorism, but that’s where we are headed. Insurgencies carry out terrorist acts. You can call it something different, but ultimately you’re blowing things up and trying to kill as many soldiers as you can.”

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday that the US still ultimately pins the blame on the Assad regime because by not abiding by the cease-fire, and by turning to violence initially, it pushed the opposition in that direction. 

“The degree to which that chaos, that they are leading, also leads to other kinds of chaos, we still put responsibility firmly at their feet,” she said of the regime, according to Bloomberg. “These kinds of tactics are not in keeping with what we’ve seen from the legitimate opposition,” she said of the bombings. 

Meanwhile, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey said yesterday that the Pentagon knows there are "extremist elements trying to make inroads in Syria," but that they are "distinct from the opposition." 

But US officials are also arguing against the opposition's use of violence because it "erodes the opposition's moral advantage," increases the likelihood of sectarian fighting, and undermines efforts at brokering a diplomatic solution, according to Bloomberg.

The New York Times reports that a recent report from the International Crisis Group backs the US line on where the blame lies:

“The fact is that the regime’s behavior has fueled extremists on both sides and, by allowing the country’s slide into chaos, provided them space to move in and operate,’’ the report said. “The fighting came at a huge cost to civilians and, in its aftermath, security forces engaged in widespread abuse, further radicalizing large swaths of society.’’

Bill Roggio, an analyst on terror and military issues and the managing editor of the Long War Journal blog, told CNN that the attacks were likely carried out by an al Qaeda-linked group called Jabhat al-Nusra, which emerged only recently and has claimed responsibility for some of the past bombings. Jeffrey White, a defense fellow and analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that yesterday's attacks bore a resemblance to the attacks carried out by Al Qaeda elements in Iraq. 

Rather, they feel al-Assad's regime is using "jihadists and al Qaeda types" that it was tied to during the Iraq war. There are people in the Syrian opposition, [Mr. White] said, who call the Al Nusrah Front a Syrian government organization.

"The opposition guys are saying the regime still controls them. When they want them to do something, they order them up," White said.

Noting that the attack "is not typical of Free Syrian Army-type actions such as ambushes, bombings of regime vehicles, targeted killings, and attacks on checkpoints," White said there is no way to know definitively who is responsible. But he said he doubts the government is behind attacking "pillars of the regime."

CNN reports that members of the opposition have accused the regime of working with al-Nusra and other jihadist groups, but the Monitor notes that the government and jihadist groups are "unlikely bedfellows" because of the secular nature of the Syrian regime and its Alawite faith, considered apostate by many jihadis. 

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