In the 10 months that Syrians have taken to the streets, Bashar al-Assad has remained firm in his position. This is not a popular movement for democracy, he says, but rather, a sectarian and militant terror campaign.
Friday, al-Assad sought to gain legitimacy for his narrative after a pair of brazen suicide car bombings outside security installations in Damascus.
Syrian state media posted grisly photographs of the dead, which included civilians along with security personnel. Angry callers aired on state television said the anti-government protesters deserved death.
For all the horrors in Syria this year — well over 5,000 people have been killed, says the United Nations — Friday’s attacks were the first known suicide bombs since the start of the uprising, the first such high-visibility act of terror.
The people behind Friday’s explosions remained unknown. Was it a jihadist group or perhaps even al Qaeda, as the regime claimed? Or was it staged by the regime itself to further its narrative?
Al-Assad blamed the opposition; the opposition blamed al-Assad.
But one thing seemed clear: Friday marked a turning point, a steep escalation of violence in an already bloody conflict.
“I think this means it’s going to get much bloodier,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The troubled nation, it’s feared now, is on the brink of civil war. Syrians killing Syrians.
“Yes, we’re going to see a lot more of that,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies who is also a Syria expert.
Tabler found several aspects of Friday’s bombings curious.
The timing, for one, was suspect. The blasts coincided with the arrival of an Arab League advance team and hours before scheduled protests against the league’s peace plan for Syria.
The Arab League’s peace plan calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the streets, the release of detainees and dialog with the opposition. Al-Assad resisted league monitors for many weeks out of fear that the peace plan would strengthen the opposition.
Tabler said he would not put it past the regime to orchestrate bomb blasts to show the league that the violence in Syria is the handiwork of terrorists.
Secondly, Tabler found the location notable. The bombs went off outside two security installations.
“They didn’t go off inside, did they,” Tabler said.
But not everyone was buying the theory that al-Assad’s regime was behind the bombings.
“Obviously, it has the hallmark of a jihadist bombing,” Landis said. “And you can’t just recruit suicide bombers at the spur of the moment.”
Now, after months of stalemate, the Syrian revolution, Landis said, has arrived at a crossroads.
The external opposition, the Syrian National Council, has asked not to militarize the opposition in Syria and has demanded international intervention, which is not likely to happen soon.
There’s very little prospect that the fractured opposition can defeat al-Assad’s strong and capable army, Landis said.
“That creates a context for suicide bombers because there is no end in sight to this conflict,” he said. “There are these desperate measures by which people are going to try and change the status quo. Cheap, loud operations like this are going to become more likely.”
Just as the 2006 bombing of Iraq’s al-Askari Mosque transformed the U.S. occupation in Iraq into a civil war, so can this bombing in Damascus change the face of the Syrian conflict, Landis said.
And a higher visibility operation will almost surely lead to greater sectarian problems within Syria, a nation with a Sunni majority governed by a minority Alawite, an offshoot sect of Shia Islam.
“While it’s hardly beyond the realm of possibility that a regime as brutally cynical as that of President Bashar al-Assad would manufacture a false-flag terror strike to burnish its case, it would also be naive to deny the existence of a jihadist element that may be quite happy to accept a fight on Assad’s terms, i.e. a violent and sectarian war,” wrote Tony Karon, a senior editor at TIME magazine.
“After all, the Arab rebellion has not been kind to those who follow the path of al-Qaeda, leaving them on the sidelines as the Arab public forces out its tyrants and opts largely to replace them with moderate, democratic Islamist parties. There’s no room for jihadists in that equation, but they’re not likely to passively accept their marginalization.”
Karon wrote that both the roiling conflict in Syria and the one coming to a boil, again, in neighboring Iraq present opportunities for jihadist groups to reassert their claims to be fighting on behalf of embattled Sunni communities.
“That’s just fine with the Assad regime, of course, which will hope to roll back regional Arab pressure by pinning the entire rebellion on an al Qaeda threat,” he wrote.
The sad reality is that there’s no quick solution to the Syrian crisis, the experts said.
Unlike in Libya, where Moammar Gadhafi’s grip on power appeared to loosen within weeks of the revolt and the rebels armed themselves to fight an all-out war, Western nations are not likely to support a military campaign against al-Assad.
“Libya was the easy one,” said Blake Hounshell, managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine. “Syria is a vastly more complex landscape, a fault-line between Iran and the Sunni Arab world.”
With two deadly detonations Friday, that landscape may have gotten much more complex.