Syrian Opposition’s Turn to Violence Creates U.S. Dilemma

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad
Syria’s deadliest bombing to date highlights the Obama administration’s dilemma as foes of President Bashar al-Assad increasingly adopt tactics the U.S. and its allies have condemned as terrorism. Photographer: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

Syria’s deadliest bombing to date highlights the Obama administration’s dilemma as foes of President Bashar al-Assad increasingly adopt tactics the U.S. and its allies have condemned as terrorism.

No group has claimed responsibility for the double suicide bombing outside a military intelligence building in Damascus yesterday that killed 55 people and wounded at least 370. Since the uprising began in March 2011, six of the 10 biggest bombings have targeted regime security buildings, according to a list compiled by the Associated Press.

The Syrian opposition has begun adopting the tactics of an armed insurgency such as suicide bombings, which can’t be condoned, said two United Nations diplomats. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to comment. That shift is making it harder for the U.S. and its allies to keep the blame focused on the Assad regime for the violence, which persists despite a UN cease-fire agreed to by both sides in the conflict.

“America is not going to want to have its fingerprints on car bombs in Damascus,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Middle East program at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. “America is very careful about this because they don’t want to end up supporting terrorism, but that’s where we are headed. Insurgencies carry out terrorist acts. You can call it something different, but ultimately you’re blowing things up and trying to kill as many soldiers as you can.”

Holding Assad Responsible

The arrival of a small mission of UN cease-fire observers has reduced the violence without halting it.

State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland yesterday said the Assad regime is responsible for the violence because it has failed to abide by the conditions of the cease-fire.

“The degree to which that chaos, that they are leading, also leads to other kinds of chaos, we still put responsibility firmly at their feet,” she said of Syrian leaders.

Still, Western leaders are growing increasingly uncomfortable as the lines between right and wrong become blurred, according to the UN diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We’re looking at a very, very ambiguous gray zone, and it does pose a real challenge to U.S. policy,” said Aram Nerguizian, an expert on the eastern Mediterranean at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy group.

Peaceful Means

The U.S. has said it would prefer that the opposition use peaceful means to protest. The UN estimates that more than 9,000 people have been killed since the unrest began in March 2011.

From the start, the Assad regime has blamed the unrest on Islamic extremists with foreign backing -- which has been disputed by the U.S. as a false justification for the government to use military force against civilians.

Syria’s Ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, yesterday said he’s given the UN Security Council the names of 26 terrorists and a list of 12 killed, which he said included French, British and Belgian terrorists. The explosions yesterday make it “apparent” that extremist groups have emerged and are carrying out terrorist acts with greater frequency. He cited repeated instances of suicide bombers, booby-trapped cars and explosive belts, he said.

“We’ve been careful since the beginning of these events to emphasize the existence of armed groups associated with al-Qaeda but many political parties and hostile media have cast doubts on that,” Jaafari told the council. “Here we are witnessing it.”

Extremist Inroads

In February, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called in a video for the ouster of the Assad regime, which raised concern in the West that the conflict would become a magnet for Islamic radicals as happened in Iraq.

U.S. Navy Admiral Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday that while U.S. officials haven’t seen any intelligence suggesting al-Qaeda is responsible for yesterday’s attack, “we do know that there have been extremist elements that are trying to make inroads in Syria.”

“That is to be distinct from the opposition -- I am not tying those together,” he added.

“These kinds of tactics are not in keeping with what we’ve seen from the legitimate opposition,” Nuland said of the bombings, which stripped the facade from nearby buildings and mangled cars. “They could be the work of spoilers or others,” she said.

Nuland and other U.S. officials argue that the use of violence invites Islamist extremism, erodes the opposition’s moral advantage, raises the risks of sectarian strife, and undermines attempts to reach a diplomatic solution.

Administration Dilemma

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Special Envoy Kofi Annan, who crafted the cease-fire agreement, have warned that the country may spiral into a “full-scale civil war with catastrophic effects.”

The administration’s dilemma, Nerguizian said, reflects a lack of strategic clarity.

“Supporting the opposition at the rhetorical level is one thing; having a clear strategy is another,” Nerguizian said in a phone interview. “There was always a risk that the longer this went on, the more you would see this sort of thing,” including improvised explosive devices and involvement of Islamic radicals.

Nuland suggested that yesterday’s attack might not be the work of U.S.-supported opposition groups. Those include the Syrian National Council, an umbrella opposition group, which is directly backed by the U.S., Europe and Arab nations. The SNC funnels payments to the Syrian Free Army, a collection of loose-knit groups of fighters within Syria.

Even as the U.S. has opposed militarizing the conflict, its allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia have publicly called for arming the opposition and reportedly are doing so. U.S. assistance is limited to communications gear, medical equipment and items to help refugees, including tents and fresh water.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE