BEIRUT: Daily explosions in the center of Damascus this week have shaken residents, although uncertainty remains about who bears responsibility and what the culprits would hope to gain.
On Monday, Syria’s prime minister narrowly escaped assassination when an IED detonated as his convoy drove though the upmarket Mezzeh district, killing his bodyguard and four others.
The following day a powerful bomb struck the commercial central Marjeh district outside the former Interior Ministry building, leaving 13 dead, the state news agency reported.
And Wednesday, when President Bashar Assad made a rare public appearance in the capital, two bombs exploded in Khaled bin Walid street and the nearby Bab Mousalla square, killing four and wounding more, according to state media.
The state has pointed the finger at “terrorists” – its term for the opposition – in all instances. The Nusra Front has indeed claimed responsibility for some car bombs around Damascus in recent months, but none this week.
Analysts told The Daily Star that the bombs, if carried out by rebels, demonstrate that despite a high level of security around the center of the capital, Assad’s forces are no longer able to seal the city off from violence which has wrought devastation upon the rest of the country.
“The attack against Prime Minister [Wael] al-Halqi’s convoy Monday and the explosion in Marjeh Square the following day highlight that key government targets in central Damascus are not beyond the reach of the armed opposition,” Torbjorn Soltvedt, principal MENA analyst at risk firm Maplecroft told The Daily Star.
“What is clear is that even though the regime has tried to make Damascus into a fortress, the city is not impenetrable,” echoed Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institute in Doha.
But logistically speaking, how would rebels get into the heart of Damascus? Aerial rocket shelling from rebel-held suburbs is one thing, but planting car bombs would require crossing around 12 checkpoints, Shaikh highlighted, a journey which could take around two hours each way.
According to Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, the rebels have the capacity to carry out such attacks. She highlighted the bombing last summer in which the opposition struck the National Security headquarters in Damascus, killing the Defense minister and his deputy.
“This is an example of the opposition’s ability to hit at the heart of the regime. Not only have rebels shown a remarkable capability with well-placed IEDs, but the Nusra Front specifically, and some others as well, have former ties to the regime that have given them the knowledge to access and penetrate into even some of the regime’s most secure neighborhoods,” she said.
Another possibility, analysts said, was the presence of collaborators within the inside, a scenario likely to rattle the regime, which has, despite widespread military defections, been assured of die-hard support from Assad’s inner circle of loyalists in central Damascus.
“Given the strong security measures implemented in central Damascus, regime officials are likely to be concerned about the possibility that insiders aided the attackers,” Soltvedt said.
“Are those people conspiring or collaborating with rebels or is it regime elements?” who bear sole responsibility for the recent attacks, which occurred within the sacred “square of security,” asked Shaikh.
If the former, it would show, “the regime is losing control and it shows that it does not have the airtight security that it thinks it has.”
For the duration of the war, Damascus has remained the calmest place in the country. Many residents and internally displaced people have decided to remain, believing it to be immune to the levels of violence outside, so why the sudden uptick in violence now?
The opposition, O’Bagy said, “has become more emboldened in its targeting of certain regime strongholds,” and “there has been a lot of chatter from opposition sources that more and more groups are looking to close in on Damascus and try to hit at some of the regime strongholds.”
Unless an opposition group takes credit within the next few days, “there is a possibility that it could have been the regime,” O’Bagy said.
The regime, she added, “has been known to conduct such attacks in order to create domestic fear of ‘terrorists’ and especially to cause concern within the international community about providing greater support to the opposition.”
“I think you’re likely to see more focus on Damascus as a whole, with both sides trying to show force in the capital,” she added.
“The regime is trying to change the narrative for the domestic but also an international audience, which is focusing on Islamist extremism and terror,” Shaikh said.
He added, “This is a real life example of terror and extremism, attacking what they would say is not just security targets but innocent people. It helps to change the narrative.”
But whoever bears responsibility, the attacks are certainly shaking the tenacity and patience of city residents.
Nour, who lives in central Malki, has been determined to continue living and working in the city until now. But this week’s events have tested her nerves.
“We don’t feel safe. We are seriously thinking about leaving but haven’t figured out the way to do that, for many reasons, mainly financial,” she said.
“We blame the regime, of course. They are carrying out these explosions to terrorize people and convince us what it would be like if they leave.”