LONDON/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Two suicide bombs that killed 40 people in Damascus on Friday may mark a new order of violence aimed at toppling Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, although some of his foes pointed the finger at his own intelligence services.
“We have all sorts of suspicions that this could be organized by the regime itself,” said Basma Qadmani, spokeswoman for the main opposition Syrian National Council.
The authorities, this argument goes, want to show Arab League monitors, whose advance team arrived in Damascus on Thursday, that Syria is the victim of blind violence, and are willing to wreak bloody havoc in their own capital to prove it.
Several analysts dismissed such theories.
“I don’t see any logic for the regime,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. “They want to seem in control. They do want to make the opposition seem barbaric but they’re very anxious about not frightening people too much.”
For weeks Syria had resisted accepting the monitors, who are
to check if Damascus is complying with an Arab League plan to end the violence. It calls for withdrawal of troops from the streets, release of prisoners and dialogue with the opposition.
Syria, which needs to prove compliance to escape Arab economic sanctions, is perhaps painfully aware that if the peace plan was properly implemented it would embolden protesters who now risk violent consequences if they take to the streets.
On the face of it, the worst bombings to hit the Syrian capital in years would appear to be a humiliating blow to the prestige of the country’s pervasive secret police apparatus, especially since security buildings were the targets.
But they also fit conveniently into the Assad government’s narrative that foreign-backed Islamist “terrorists” are behind nine months of unrest reported to have cost 7,000 lives. The United Nations says more than 5,000 have been killed by the security forces. The government says it has lost 2,000 dead.
“The regime is blaming ‘terrorists’ and al-Qaeda and it is difficult to know at this stage who is behind the operations,” said Marwa Daoudy, a scholar at St Anthony’s College, Oxford.
State media, often selective in their approach to news, devoted blanket coverage to the bombings, showing graphic footage of the victims and featuring interviews that drove home a single message.
“What do the foreigners who support the opposition say now? What do you say now to the carnage and bloodshed that we’ve seen today?” Mansour Murad, a pro-Syrian Jordanian former lawmaker, asked repeatedly on Syrian television.
Syrian citizens were shown asking: “Is this the freedom they (the opposition) want? Is this freedom?”
The television also showed a red-framed screen with “Al Qaeda terrorism” written in bloody-looking script.
Suicide bombings would certainly be an alien tactic for the protesters who in March launched largely peaceful demonstrations against four decades of Baath party and Assad family rule.
They would also be a departure for the Syrian Free Army, composed mainly of army defectors who are the backbone of an increasingly violent insurgency.
“The Free Syrian Army does not appear to possess such (suicide bombing) infrastructure and has denied any responsibility in carrying out such operations,” Daoudy said.
The main opposition Syrian National Council has tried to discourage violence, but it is not clear how much influence it wields over those now fighting back after months of fierce government repression of popular protests.
For now the truth is murky, like much of what happens in a country run by Assad’s secretive, security-oriented circle and from which most independent media have been barred for months.
Until now, al Qaeda has not claimed any part in the anti-Assad revolt, although it has no ideological sympathy with the Arab nationalism preached by Syria’s secular Baathist rulers.
U.S. officials have long accused the Syrians of supporting Islamist militants when it suited Damascus, notably after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, when al Qaeda-linked fighters from around the Arab world found easy transit through Syria.
But Syria has also fought home-grown Muslim militancy since the early 1980s when the president’s father, Hafez al-Assad, crushed an uprising of an armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, killing many thousands of people in their stronghold of Hama.
Beirut-based commentator Rami Khouri said he doubted the government would have hit its own security targets, suggesting that the bombings could have been the work of armed rebels, who he said include hardline Salafi Islamists in their ranks.
“There is a war going on in Syria now. There’s a national insurrection and this is a normal part of that process,” he said, noting that the government had also used heavy firepower.
Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut, also said he did not believe that the Syrian government was behind the bombings. “When it comes to security in Damascus, the government does not play games.”
Nor did he believe al Qaeda was responsible, despite a Syrian statement that neighboring Lebanon had warned Damascus that al Qaeda fighters had crossed into Syria from its soil.
“Al Qaeda flows from Syria to Lebanon, not the other way around,” Khashan said. “And everyone knows that Syria has been behind the flow of al Qaeda operatives around the region since the unrest in Iraq.”
He said the bombings were a “symptom of desperation” after so many Syrians had seen blood and death in the crushing of protests. “This is definitely a turning point. I think the phenomenon of suicide bombs in Syria could be on the rise.”
Landis of Oklahoma University said Friday’s bombings were “a small premonition” of what was in store for Syria as the opposition to Assad became increasingly militarized.
With little prospect of Libya-style international military intervention, Syrian insurgents realized they were on their own.
“And they’re getting fed up with the Syrian National Council and this talk of ‘peaceful, peaceful’,” Landis said. “They think: ‘You’re a fool, you’re waiting for NATO to do a Libya, and they’re not going to do that. They’re killing us here...and we’re going to make the government pay a high price for that’.”
Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Mark Heinrich