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Three powerful explosions went off in the Syrian city of Aleppo today, killing scores of people as the most recent rebel offensive enters its second week, and yet another multilateral effort to curb the violence crumbles.
A Syrian government source said three cars packed with explosives were detonated near an officers' club in Aleppo, killing at least 27 people, reports The Associated Press. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that relies on information from opposition rebels and activists, put the death toll at closer to 40 people, adding that at least 90 others are injured.
“It was like a series of earthquakes ... it was terrifying, terrifying,” one witness told the AP.
The blasts are being called suicide bombings by the government and went off in a main square in a government-held area of the city. A fourth bomb detonated a few blocks away, near the Aleppo Chamber of Commerce. State-run television station Ikhbariya showed footage of the sweeping destruction in Saadallah al-Jabri square, including damaged building facades and one structure that appeared to have been leveled to the ground.
"The area is heavily fortified by security and the presence of shabiha," Aleppo-based activist Mohammad Saeed told the AP, referring to pro-regime militia fighters. Gunfighting reportedly broke out after the blasts.
Car and suicide bombings have become increasingly common in Syria’s civil war, but they are relatively new in Aleppo, which was spared from violence and destruction for most of the first year of the conflict, according to a second AP report.
The 19-month civil war has claimed between 20,000 and 30,000 lives, according to tallies from the United Nations and activist groups, and calls to halt the violence and humanitarian crisis are mounting.
Meanwhile, a regional effort between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran to mediate Syria's crisis, announced in August, appears to be unraveling, reports Reuters. Saudi Arabia has missed its second meeting in a row, according to the Egyptian foreign minister, hampering their ability to find a solution.
Many questioned the group’s chances of success from the beginning because it consists of Syrian ally Iran and three opponents to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, who would be unlikely to find common ground. The countries agreed on the need for change in Syria, but not necessarily on how to bring about that change, the Egyptian minister told Reuters.
A column by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria notes that the violence unfolding in Syria is straining an already shaky region where countries' borders are often artificial and often encompass competing religious and ethnic groups. Cooperation between these countries is imperative to preventing violence from spreading further and sectarian divides from tearing them apart.
… [C]ould Syria’s neighbors come to recognize that civil war in Syria is not simply an internal affair, but something likely ultimately to undermine the entire state system of the Middle East? If Syria’s neighbors do indeed recognize this, you would expect to see Saudi Arabia and Egypt on the one hand, and Iran on the other trying to find ways to rein in the violence. And there have been moves to form a “contact group” of those four powers to meet. Iran has been eager to join in but so far Saudi Arabia has refused to sit down with the Iranians.
When all is said and done, however, it’s difficult to see how any progress towards a new political order will occur with Bashar al-Assad remaining as Syria’s president. So the first step would have to be for the Iranians to recognize the inevitable and call on al-Assad to leave office.
Sadly, when I asked President Ahmadinejad about this very matter last week, his answer was not encouraging.
The international community also heightened its calls for an end to Syria’s violence after the United Nations General Assembly, where world leaders expressed their dismay but offered no concrete solutions. Some questioned why a powerful country like the United States has yet to step into the fray.
Jeff Goldberg, a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic, says the Syrian rebels are in need of the kind of help and support the United States can provide:
The United States has the capability to efficiently neutralize Syria's air defenses and impose a no-fly zone to ground Assad's attack helicopters. And as Michael Doran and Max Boot pointed out in The New York Times recently, only America can lead a multinational effort to establish safe corridors between the Turkish border and the besieged city of Aleppo. Stable rebel control of Aleppo would spell the end of Assad's regime and its appalling brutality.
However, columnist Joe Klein writes in Time magagzine that many of the regional tensions stem from past foreign interference: States in the Middle East have very artificial borders, largely drawn by colonial powers.
Six years ago, long before the carnage, Syria's Bashar Assad told me he was extremely worried that "his" Kurds would break off and join Iraq's semiliberated northern province to form a greater Kurdistan. Who knows how the Kurds in Turkey and Iran would react to such an entity?
This is the real challenge the US faces in the region that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Hindu Kush. The problems in Afghanistan have their roots in a line drawn by the British in 1893 that amputates Pashtunistan – like Kurdistan, a coherent region – into Afghan and Pakistani pieces. The patch of sand called Jordan was a gift to Britain's Hashemite allies in World War I. Israel, too, is a figment of the Western imagination, although – contra Ahmadinejad – it does have ancient roots in the region and has transformed itself into one of the world's strongest democracies, a real place, a true nation (as is Iran, by the way).
It would be nice to have a real discussion about these issues, which may define the next era of US foreign policy.
“Syria’s problems will not stay inside Syria,” writes Mr. Zakaria. “Syria is a multi-sectarian society with shared identities with groups in other countries. As a result, the sectarian tensions that are being unleashed there are also spilling over from Syria’s borders.”