Middle East

Car bombs on the rise in Syria, report shows

A fireman sprays water on a vehicle following a car bomb explosion in the Al-Fahameh neighborhood of central Damascus on April 16, 2013.

BEIRUT: A new report documenting the growing phenomenon of car bombs and small explosions in Syria shows that over 1,000 people have died in such attacks since the civil war began two years ago.

The report, from the Human Rights Violations Documentation Center, a Syrian pro-revolution activist group documenting abuses during the war, shows that while once a rare occurrence, car bombs are being used increasingly frequently in Syria, with a recent high of 183 incidents within the month of February alone.

Some attacks, such as October car bombs in Aleppo which targeted the residences of senior regime figures, have been claimed by the Nusra Front, an Islamist branch of the Syrian opposition which has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda and been blacklisted by the U.S. as a terrorist organization.

But the vast majority has gone unclaimed by any party, and many believe the regime has been responsible.

The introduction to the VDC report notes that both the regime and the rebels have accused each other for bearing responsibility for all those unclaimed car bombs and explosions, which thus far have killed 1,156 civilians and rebels – including 120 children and 93 women, and only 106 opposition fighters – and 389 regime soldiers.

The Daily Star could not independently verify the contents of the report.

“[The] regime has accused rebels of committing them, and in return rebels have done the same,” it says, but notes that “as most of these bombings took place in fortified security areas with lots of checkpoints,” this has “raised more suspicions that regime has planned it.”

Anthony Skinner, director of the Middle East and North Africa department at the British risk analysis group Maplecroft, said that while it was hard to say definitively which party was responsible for the majority of car bombs, it was likely that the regime had some involvement.

“The authorities do still have a motive to launch attacks, as they want to ensure cohesion among the inner circle,” he told The Daily Star.

“By perpetuating a level of insecurity and instability and potentially launching attacks and pointing the finger at Nusra and other groups they can reinforce their argument that these attacks are being fueled by militant Islamists ... It allows them to continue with this narrative, that the unrest is the work of terrorists.”

The regime of President Bashar Assad has long asserted that the civil war, which began over two years ago as a civilian uprising and has now claimed at least 70,000 lives, is being led by Islamist militants and foreign extremists.

State media SANA frequently documents car bomb attacks, largely in and around the capital Damascus, as being carried out by “terrorists.”

Skinner said the regime could be using the rising number of car bomb as “a tactic to argue that it is a victim.”

As the Nusra Front has claimed responsibility for several car bombs, this allows the regime to continue blaming all similar attacks on militant Islamists, Skinner said, and to manipulate already existing divisions within the opposition for its own advantage.

With many members of Nusra having been trained in Iraq, where car bombs occur an almost daily basis, the regime could also be using such attacks to scare the population into fearing what might come next, should the government eventually be toppled.

Incidents which may have been carried out by the regime, Skinner said, could be “another tactic to show to the population ... as they are continuing to resort to extreme force, what a mess Syria would be if the armed opposition were to take over. Bashar wants the population to fear that Syria would plunge into decades of lawlessness should the Baath Party be ousted.”

The regime might be trying to show a future Syria not unlike the darkest days of post-U.S. invasion Iraq in 2006 and 2007, when car bombs and explosions were even more common than they are today.

Another rationale behind this increase in car bomb attacks “could be to create fractures within opposition,” Skinner said, between the secular liberal strand and the more radical militant Islamist sides.

“If Nusra are being seen as behind the majority of attacks ... this could weaken the overall opposition,” Skinner added.

But why is the Nusra Front carrying out the attacks which it has claimed responsibility for? Aside from targeting prominent members of the regime, they have also killed untold numbers of civilians.

“Nusra is trying to take out and intimidate elements of the regime,” Skinner said, but “there is also a certain willingness to accept collateral damage.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 23, 2013, on page 8.

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