Beirut, Lebanon – Powerful car bombs exploded outside two security headquarters in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Friday, killing 28 people by official count and signaling that emboldened forces seeking the government’s overthrow can strike at the very seat of its power.
The blasts, about two minutes apart, shattered the calm of a Muslim Sabbath morning and nearly 11 months without significant violence in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital.
A combination of military and police personnel, as well as civilians, including children, were killed outside a military security headquarters and a police compound, according to a Ministry of Health statement on state television.
The attack in Aleppo signaled another escalation in a crisis that began 11 months ago, as the government and the opposition hardened their resolve to use force and diplomatic efforts continued to fail. On Friday, as government forces pressed an unrelenting offensive against the city of Homs, demonstrations edged close to the center of the capital, Damascus, pushing antigovernment action into new territory.
In Aleppo, a bastion of government support, the dual explosions wounded about 235 people, state television said, 14 of them critically. State television repeatedly broadcast images of disemboweled victims lying amid jumbled concrete wreckage. One of the buildings appeared flattened and the other was a rose-colored, five-story expanse of shattered windows and cracked masonry.
In the absence of a negotiated or diplomatic solution after the latest attempt failed in the United Nations Security Council last Saturday, and with cities and towns across the country besieged by government tanks, the rise of an armed insurgency has gained momentum. Though it was unclear who was responsible for the bombings in Aleppo, or similar attacks in Damascus in December and January, it seemed that Syria was facing the kind of violence it had long been accused of supporting in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon.
In Washington, analysts were looking seriously at the possibility that Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq was responsible for Friday’s attack in neighboring Syria. “It comes as no surprise that Al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate — through its networks in Syria — might attempt to seem relevant by going after the Assad regime,” said an American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the assessment contained classified information. “It is opportunism, plain and simple.”
Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a recent book on Syrian-American relations, said, “This is the regime’s foreign policy coming back to bite it.”
The bombings in Damascus claimed 70 victims. Like those in Aleppo, they bore the hallmarks of attacks carried out by Sunni extremist groups, experts said.
The government has always argued that it was fighting foreign terrorists, a charge dismissed as propaganda by the Syrian activists leading the uprising. But the attacks on Friday suggest that now foreign fighters may indeed be jumping into the conflict in response to the vicious government crackdown, which human rights groups say has left about 6,000 people dead, experts said.
“Clearly the gloves are coming off,” Mr. Tabler said. “You cannot have the shelling of Homs for six days without someone hitting back.”
Diplomats and analysts are quick to point out that although this attack and the earlier ones in Damascus bear the hallmarks of Al Qaeda, there is no indication of an organized branch of the organization like those in Iraq, Yemen or North Africa.
Syria is a patchwork of religious sects and ethnic minorities, with some extremists pushing the Sunni majority toward a sectarian war against the Alawite minority that has ruled the country for 40 years.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Aleppo was the scene of running battles between the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and the government of President Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, Bashar al-Assad. But there was no sign that the attack Friday amounted to a resurrection of that fight, since the Muslim Brotherhood ranks were decimated and have never been rebuilt, the analysts and diplomats said.
There were confused claims of responsibility for the bombings. Senior officers in the Turkey-based Free Syrian Army, which includes defectors from the security forces, said it had carried out an armed attack on the two headquarters earlier in the day, prompting skirmishes with the military.
As rebels were withdrawing, Gen. Atef Hammoud said, the car bombs erupted, but he said that his troops had nothing to do with them.
The Syrian government described the attacks as the work of “terrorist gangs,” and the Foreign Ministry sent letters to the United Nations, the Arab League and other international agencies stressing “that this horrible terrorist attack came with the framework of the unfair campaign launched against Syria,” according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.
Some government opponents accused the Assad government of carrying out the attacks, although they presented no evidence.
The explosions came a week after the authorities began what activists have depicted as a major effort to crush dissent.
The next diplomatic steps are expected to emerge from a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers on Sunday in Cairo and the United Nations General Assembly on Monday. Saudi Arabia is circulating the text of a General Assembly resolution that echoes the one vetoed in the Security Council on Feb. 4. It endorses an Arab League peace plan that includes President Assad’s delegating power to his vice president, but the vote would largely symbolic.
On Friday, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia publicly castigated Russia and China, saying the veto was “absolutely regrettable.” In Syria, demonstrators throughout the country placed blame for the spiraling violence on Russia, which vetoed the Security Council resolution along with China.
More than 30 people were killed in clashes throughout the country, activists said, including 7 in Aleppo at antigovernment protests after Friday Prayer, and around 17 in besieged Homs. Of the victims in Homs, five died of wounds suffered earlier in the siege of the city that has gone on for a week, said a statement from the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Homs residents reached by telephone said that although the shelling of at least one neighborhood, Baba Amr, went on without pause, Friday had been the lightest day this week over all.
In Washington, an American military official said Friday that in recent weeks the Pentagon had begun to review potential military possibilities for Syria, but that the discussions were in the hypothetical phase.
“We’re looking at a whole range of options, but as far as going to one course of action, I’ve not seen anything,” said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss secret internal discussions.
The official declined to elaborate on the possible options, but typically the Pentagon — which, as a matter of course, reviews options when conflicts around the world arise — would consider everything, including humanitarian assistance, arming rebels, covert action, airstrikes, deploying ground troops or doing nothing.
Using Libya as a model, it is difficult to imagine that the United States would act unless it was part of a United Nations-sanctioned international coalition.