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Syria bombings hit a city seen as key to Assad's future

Rebels and the government of President Bashar Assad trade blame for the twin bombings in Aleppo, which killed at least 28.

February 10, 2012|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • Syrian rescue teams work at one of the bombing sites in Aleppo. Whoever was responsible -- the government or rebels -- there seemed little question that the attacks constituted a propaganda coup for President Bashar Assad.
Syrian rescue teams work at one of the bombing sites in Aleppo. Whoever was… (Syrian Arab News Agency )

Reporting from Beirut — A pair of car bombs killed at least 28 people and left hundreds injured in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, bringing the violence that has raged across much of the country to a pro-government commercial hub whose allegiance is regarded as vital to the survival of President Bashar Assad.

The twin bombings Friday, apparently aimed at military and police posts, stunned residents of the key city. State television broadcast horrific live shots in an effort to bolster Assad's claim that he is fighting violent, foreign-backed efforts to overthrow him.

Each side immediately blamed the other for the attacks — the same cycle of accusations that followed bombings in Damascus, the capital, on Dec. 23 and Jan. 6.

The government said the Aleppo bombings were the work of "terrorists," its customary depiction of those behind an almost yearlong national uprising that has evolved from provincial protests to widespread armed rebellion.

The rebel Free Syrian Army charged that the bombings were the handiwork of a desperate regime seeking to instigate fear and divert attention from its bloody crackdown on the besieged city of Homs, 100 miles to the south.

Both sides probably have the capability to set off large car bombs. U.S. officials said Syria was a main pipeline for car bombers in neighboring Iraq during the most violent years of that country's civil war. Whoever was responsible, however, there seemed little question that the attacks constituted a propaganda coup for Assad.

The president has cast himself as a force for stability, battling militants bent on taking Syria down path similar to Iraq's.

Rather than downplay the bombings because they illustrated the state's inability to stop the violence, the government chose to highlight the slaughter in lurid fashion.

Syrian television lingered on gory images of the bombings' aftermath: mangled corpses, severed limbs, smashed vehicles and shattered buildings. The footage was looped repeatedly, accompanied by both mournful music and denunciations of the alleged complicity of Washington, Al Qaeda and the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar.

Qatar has been at the forefront of Arab countries pushing for the violence to end, and for Assad to step down. A U.N. Security Council resolution backing a plan for Assad to cede power, pressed by the U.S., its Western allies and the Arab League, failed last Saturday because Russia and China vetoed it.

Russia has justified its support of Assad as an effort to reduce bloodshed and spur negotiations between the government and its opponents.

A Syrian state television commentator called the Aleppo bombings "an act of war" and denounced, among others, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and a Qatar-based Sunni Muslim scholar and television preacher, Yusuf Qaradawi, who has been accused of stoking sectarian fears in Syria.

Later, Syrian television alternated between transmission of Friday prayers and the graphic bombing footage.

"It is terrorism which is aimed at us," declared a teary-eyed television reporter broadcasting live from the scene.

The government's message was that Syria's international adversaries, led by the West, Turkey and Gulf Arab states, were happy to turn the country into a charnel house if that is what it took to dislodge Assad, whose family has ruled for more than 40 years.

"The crime was committed by parties that were supported by Arab and Western countries," the Syrian Foreign Ministry declared in a combative letter sent to the United Nations and other international organizations. It accused Syria's enemies of using "humanitarian" cover to unleash terrorism.

"Some countries … harbor armed terrorist groups which adopted murdering as a way to achieve [their] destructive goals," it said.

In both Aleppo and Damascus, strategic cities, Assad has sought to retain support by arguing that his government is the only bulwark holding back a tide of militant Islamic violence and sectarian bloodletting. The message is especially directed at minorities, including Christians and Assad's Alawite sect, secular Muslims and business classes.

Observers say the opposition's metamorphosis from peaceful protest to armed insurrection and its increasing military strength may bolster Assad's hand, scaring off some Syrians from embracing the rebellion.

Within the opposition, there is deep division about the progression to armed rebellion, in part because many see it as providing a boost to Assad. Some opposition activists viewed the Aleppo bombings as a setback in their campaign to reassure the middle-class business community and others that they are not the fanatics daily demonized by authorities.

"We are trying to win over Aleppo. Why would we attack it?" asked an opposition activist in Homs, who gave his name only as Sofian for security reasons. "There is no benefit for us in attacking the city."

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