The Damascus Double Bombing: Is the Syrian Capital Back in Play?

With Aleppo still being battled over, the rebels may just be signaling to Assad that he is well within their sights

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LOUAI BESHARA / AFP / Getty Images

Syrian soldiers stand at the site of twin bombings near the headquarters of the armed forces general staff in Damascus, Sept. 26, 2012.

The early morning attack was an audacious assault on the fortified Syrian capital. On Wednesday morning, Damascus saw a double bombing outside a key Syrian military headquarters in the heart of city. According to the Syrian state news agency, the incident left four guards dead and some 14 people wounded. 

The agency, and the government it serves, predictably blamed “terrorists,” its catchall phrase for opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad, for the attack on the army’s General Staff Command. An Islamist Free Syrian Army unit, Ansar al-Islam, claimed responsibility, saying five of its fighters including a suicide bomber died in the blasts, according to a statement posted online. “The Jihadist heroes have carried out … a complex suicide operation at 6:55 am against the headquarters of the General Staff of the criminal gang of Assad,” it said.

(PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)

Explosives were also placed in the third floor of the building, the statement added, saying that the operation was conducted with the help of “honorable” military officers, suggesting the now-common use of sympathizers within loyalist ranks, men who have defected in spirit but not in body in order to feed intelligence to the rebels. The blasts were followed by a sustained hours-long gunfight, according to media reports. Just a day earlier, Ansar al-Islam (along with another Islamist group, the Grandsons of the Prophet) said they had detonated explosives in a school on the fringes of the capital used as a loyalist outpost.

It’s too early to tell if Damascus is back in play, months after a rebel operation codenamed the “Damascus Volcano,” seemed to quickly fizzle. In mid-July, several senior security officials including Assad’s much-feared brother-in-law and the defense minister were killed in another well-planned bombing that rattled the upper echelons of the military establishment but did not result in significant chunks of Damascus falling away from the regime.

Wednesday’s attack once again made it clear that some elements of the armed Syrian opposition have the ability to reach deep into Assad’s regime and inflict damage. The message to Assad is clear – that nothing is out of bounds in the battle for Syria, not even his fortified capital with its 18 or so security agencies headquartered there. Syrian state media has long vacillated between two seemingly schizophrenic narratives, that “Syria is fine” and that it is under attack from extremist Sunni terrorists. Bombs going off in sensitive military headquarters make it clear that Syria is nowhere near fine.

In that regard, Wednesday’s bombing is a psychological boost to the rebels, but what will it translate to on the ground? Is it a precursor to a sustained fight for Damascus? That’s unlikely given that Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its commercial hub, is still being fought over—a situation that has lasted for two months now. There, streets, and street corners, continue to regularly change hands, the to-ing and fro-ing eroding the social and material infrastructure of one of the world’s oldest cities. Aleppo’s battles are very parochial fights, sometimes over a patch of a single street, but they have vast national implications and until a decisive blow is dealt, either to the rebels or the loyalists, it’s unlikely that the overstretched rebels will make a sustained push for the capital.

(MORE: Depsite Syria’s Bloodbath, a Libya-Style Intervention is Unlikely)

Meanwhile, the double-digit, and frequently triple-digit daily death tolls continue with numbing effect, the sheer volume of blood becoming an almost dull backdrop, an established reality that barely seems to elicit condemnation. U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent warning to the Assad regime that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” was widely interpreted by many Syrians as basically saying that everything else – including attacking neighborhoods with warplanes – was within the limits, not worthy of “red line status.” And so, Assad continues to bomb his people from the air while his opponents continue to inflict casualties on his troops.

A viable plan to stem the bloodshed remains elusive. Lakhdar Brahimi, the international mediator on Syria, has consistently downplayed already-low expectations that he can forge some kind of an end to an 18-month conflict that he admits is “extremely bad and getting worse.”

“I do not have a full plan for the moment, but I have a few ideas,” the veteran Algerian diplomat said on Monday. Qatar’s emir seems to have a plan, but not a new one. (He and his foreign minister raised the same idea back in January.) On Tuesday the emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, told the United Nations General Assembly that Arab states should form a political and military coalition to intervene in Syria. The force, the emir said, would be akin to the Syrian-led Arab Deterrence Force formed by the Arab League in 1976 which permitted Syria to intervene in Lebanon’s civil war. It’s an unnerving historical example, to say the least. Those Syrian forces entered Lebanon as a peacekeeping force but soon became a party to the bloody civil conflict, initially siding with Christian parties against leftist, pro-Palestinian groups, then switching allegiances as the Lebanese state fractured along ever-changing lines. Eventually, Lebanon was militarily occupied by Syria.

Damascus’ neighbors already fear spillover of the conflict, in addition to the tens of thousands of refugees streaming across their borders. An Arab intervention force will likely draw them further into the Syrian quagmire, rather than the opposite.

And so for now it seems, the international community continues to debate the merits of a no-fly zone and how to arm (or not arm) the Free Syrian Army, including which among the ragtag groups of rebels might be worthy of more effective weapons. Meanwhile, Syrians continue to kill each other and die in horrific numbers.

MORE: Photos: Suffering and Resilience in the Hospitals of Aleppo