Why the Damascus Bombing is Better News for Syria’s Regime Than for its Opposition

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Muzaffar Salman / AP

People stand at the site of a suicide bombing in Damascus, Syria, Friday, Dec. 23, 2011.

The twin suicide bombings that killed at least 30 people in Damascus on Friday are good news for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and bad news for the opposition protest movement. That’s because the regime’s narrative of the 10-month crisis has been that Syria is facing not a citizens’ movement for democracy, but a sectarian, extremist terror campaign — a claim it uses to explain its own heavily militarized response that has resulted in the deaths of more than 5,000 Syrians, according to the U.N. The timing of the blasts, moreover, couldn’t have been better for the Assad regime, coming just a day after it had admitted, under pressure, a delegation of Arab League observers tasked with monitoring a peace agreement under which the regime had agreed to withdraw troops from its restive cities. That, and the regime’s rush to pin the attacks on al-Qaeda within minutes of breaking the news, may explain the knee-jerk response of many opposition activists who branded the event “mysterious”, and implied that it may have been staged by the regime for propaganda ends.

Useful as Friday’s attacks may have been to the regime’s p.r. battle, the likelihood of a jihadist attack on the Syrian regime can’t be that blithely dismissed. The blasts also coincided with Thursday’s attacks in Baghdad, assumed to be the work of Sunni jihadists looking to reassert themselves in Iraq amid the steadily rising sectarian tensions.  The growing alienation of Iraq’s Sunni minority from the Shi’ite dominated regime of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki — and Maliki’s systematic efforts to hobble the Sunni “Awakening” movement of former insurgents that had allied with the U.S. in order to drive al-Qaeda out of their communities — has created a more permissive environment for  the Iraqi jihadists to reestablish themselves and reverse some of their losses over the past four years.

The Iraqi Sunni insurgent tribes of Anbar and Nineveh provinces, which abut Syria, have strong ties with Sunni communities across the border, and some have spoken of helping their brethren across the border in the fight against Assad.  Iraqi Sunni extremist groups have for months been urging fighters to cross into Syria and help lead the rebellious Sunnis in a jihad against the regime. Substantial numbers of Syrians previously fought as volunteers in the Iraqi insurgency, and some are also believed to be playing a role in the Syrian uprising. The more militarized and sectarian the struggle to unseat Assad becomes, the more prominent the role of militant Islamists could become.

Until now, much of the armed resistance to the Assad regime is being undertaken by the Free Syrian Army, an insurgent force founded by defectors from the regular army and linked with the opposition umbrella organization they Syrian National Council, which quickly condemned Friday’s blasts. The Assad regime is currently engaged in what appears to be an operation to eliminate defectors around the town of Idlib, where as many as 200 have reportedly been killed in heavy fighting over the past couple of days.

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.  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. Right now, the roiling conflict in Syria — and the one coming to the boil, again, in neighboring Iraq — would present themselves as an opportunity 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. The scale of the uprising, particularly if opposition groups take advantage of the presence of Arab League monitors to undertake mass protest actions, may make it harder for Assad. But, whatever the identity of the authors of Friday’s attacks in Damascus, the development represent a tactical and political challenge to the Syrian opposition, demonstrating the danger created by responding to the regime’s brutality with a more militarized rebellion. That, after all, appears to be exactly the terrain on which Assad is choosing to fight.