Claim and Counterclaim: Who Is Bombing Damascus?

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AFP / Getty Images

A handout picture from the official Syrian News Agency (SANA) shows onlookers gathering on January 6, 2012 at the site of a powerful explosion in the Midan neighbourhood in the heart of Damascus.

In the recent past, it wasn't unusual to hear Syrians (those who dared whisper about politics) say that although they lived under a repressive regime, they had bread on the table, and car bombs didn't go off in their neighborhoods, unlike in their troubled neighbor to the east, Iraq. Such security was part of a decades-old, now decaying grand old bargain with autocratic leaders: they'd provide relative peace and limited prosperity in exchange for iron-fisted, one-party rule. In particular, the Syrian capital Damascus, the headquarters of all 18 or so of the state's security and intelligence agencies, as well as the military, was particularly impenetrable to would-be no-gooders.

That has all changed. On Friday, a blast shook the central Damascene neighborhood of Midan, just before Friday noon prayers. That much is undisputed. The rest depends on which side of the political divide you listen to, either the pro or anti-regime camp. It was third time the capital has been struck. Nearly two weeks ago, Damascus was hit by two nearly simultaneous explosions, also on a Friday before midday prayers, also targeting security forces. The Dec. 23 double suicide left 44 people dead.

Syrian state TV, the regime's mouthpiece whose cameras were quick on the scene in Midan, beamed grisly images of bright red pools of blood and torn, shredded body parts. The blast was the work of a suicide bomber, it reported. The target was a bus ferrying security forces. There were "tens of victims among civilians and law-enforcement forces, the majority were civilians," the SANA news agency reported, adding that the alleged suicide bomber set off his explosives at a traffic light, not far from the Hassan al-Hakeem Basic Education School. "The initial death toll is estimated at 25 martyrs, including the remains of 15 martyrs, and 46 injured, most of them civilians," SANA said. The Interior Ministry said in a statement that the attacks "have the fingerprints of al-Qaeda all over them."

The opposition, in its many forms, coalesced around a very different explanation. It claimed that all the attacks were staged by the regime, part of a cynical and bloody attempt to influence Arab League observers who are in the country to monitor the government's compliance with an agreement to end violence, pull troops and tanks out of cities, free political prisoners and begin a dialogue with the opposition. The attacks, the opposition argued, only furthered the regime's narrative that it is facing armed terrorist gangs rather than largely peaceful pro-democracy protesters.

The opposition points to two short snippets of video uploaded to YouTube to back their claims that the crimes were set up and that evidence was being planted — even though their authenticity cannot be verified. In a 13-second clip allegedly from Syrian state TV and broadcast on Lebanese and other Arab news channels, the camera moves inside a small mini bus, an apparent target of the Midan blast. Its light gray seats appear unsmeared by blood. A clear plastic Police shield can be seen in the aisle, as well as a black helmet on one of the seats. A hand or two (the men seem to be in uniform) then reach through the broken back window of the bus to place two police shields on the seats. In the next shot, shattered glass is visible on one of the gray seats, which is soaked in blood. A black helmet is then placed on the floor near the seat.

In the other snippet, also imprinted with the logo of Syria TV, a man carrying a reporter's microphone (only his hand and shoe appears) drops three plastic bags apparently full of groceries near a puddle of blood, before retreating from the frame. The news reader providing commentary freezes mid-sentence unsure of how to proceed.

There were reports of other explosions, also targeting loyalist troops in Syria today, principally in the rebellious central city of Hama, as well as the similarly besieged Homs. Syrian state TV did not dwell on those incidents.

Colonel Riad al-As'ad, the leader of the rebel Free Syria Army (FSA), was quick to distance his group from Friday's bombing. But just days before, he had pledged to step up attacks against loyalist security forces. On Jan. 3, As'ad had said that his group would "take a decision which will surprise the regime and the whole world" within days. "What is most likely now is we will start a huge escalation of our operations," he told the media. It's unclear how much control As'ad, who is based in Turkey, has over defectors on the ground. TIME's reporting suggests Syria-based defectors make and follow their own orders, sometimes informing the FSA's command in Turkey after the fact, as a courtesy and in order to publicize it.

It's all getting very ugly, very quickly. The Arab League observer mission, now two weeks into its task, was supposed to cut through the competing narratives and ascertain what is going on. Instead, it has come under mounting criticism for everything from its choice of the head of the mission, a Sudanese general whom rights organizations accuse of playing a role in the alleged atrocities in Darfur, to claims that the regime is hoodwinking the monitors. Earlier this week, the Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Araby said that regime had released some 3,500 prisoners, and withdrawn its tanks from the cities. Amateur footage soon surfaced disputing the latter claim, showing military hardware on residential streets, while rights activists say thousands more continue to languish in Syrian detention centers.

The Qatari prime minister and foreign minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani, who chairs the League's committee on Syria, acknowledged that the mission had made mistakes, but did not specify what they were. Al Thani was at the United Nations on Thursday, seeking "technical" assistance for the monitoring mission. The League is due to meet on the weekend to discuss if the mission will proceed, given increasing calls for it to withdraw, including from the largely toothless but still symbolic Arab Parliament. Still, Araby has already said that the show will go on, and that more monitors will soon arrive in the country.

The League seems desperate for some way to resolve the Syrian quagmire, preferably via an "Arab solution." Toward that end, El-Araby held a press conference at the League's headquarters in Cairo on Friday with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who had travelled from Damascus. "Khaled Meshaal carried no message to me from the Syrian authorities but I asked him to carry a message to Damascus to help facilitate the job of the Arab League mission in Syria," El-Araby said.

He acknowledged that the Syrian government wasn't holding up its end of the Arab League bargain, saying that the monitors "are not having an easy time and their task is difficult. I am sending a message via Khaled Meshaal to ask the Syrian authorities to honor their commitments," he said.

Meshaal, pledged to deliver the message and to try to help "spare Syrian blood and help the cause of stability in Syria against plots that are designed against it." There has been much talk in recent weeks about Hamas potentially pulling out of its long-time base in Damascus, given Syria's troubles, and relocating elsewhere in the region, in a move that may also realign away from Syria and Iran toward the Sunni Arab monarchies. But on Friday, Meshaal downplayed any fears about Hamas' future in Syria or elsewhere. "Hamas leaders have no concern about where they would be in the Arab world or in the occupied Palestinian territories," he said.