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Powerful Car Bomb Attack Kills More Than 50 People in Damascus

February 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: We return to the conflict in Syria, where more than 50 people were killed and hundreds more were injured in a Damascus car bombing today.

We have a report narrated by Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News.

LINDSEY HILSUM, Independent Television News: At least three bombs exploded in downtown Damascus this morning, a coordinated assault designed to kill and maim.

A car which the Syrian government said was carrying five bombs exploded just outside the headquarters of President Assad’s Baath Party, dozens killed, hundreds injured, devastating damage, more evidence that, even in the heart of the capital, Syrian civilians are not safe. Survivors shown on Syrian state TV blamed Jabhat al-Nusra, the jihadi wing of the rebels linked to al-Qaida.

MAN: This is terrorism. It’s murder. It’s un-Islamic. You’re telling me it was done by al-Nusra? I hope God never forgives them.

MAN: We think Jabhat al-Nusra and the Wahhabi terrorists did this.

LINDSEY HILSUM: A rebel video reveals that the last man shows up frequently on state TV, often as an eyewitness, sometimes as a soldier. He spouts government propaganda. The video exposing him is rebel propaganda.

Nonetheless, in recent weeks, al-Nusra says it has carried out bombings in the capital. They said nothing about today, while the more moderate Syrian National Coalition condemned the blasts. In the Damascus suburbs today, rebels were firing missiles at the army general command headquarters.

This video apparently shows fighters who’ve come from Chechnya. The Koran speaks of Syria as a holy land. It’s becoming a magnet for jihadis, the original opposition’s talk of democracy overwhelmed. Having backed the opposition, Western countries are in no position to broker a cease-fire or a peace deal. This is a war with no victors, but many victims, where neither side is strong enough to prevail and no end is in sight.

RAY SUAREZ: Margaret Warner picks up the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: For more about today’s bombing and how it fits into the broader balance between the forces in Syria, I’m joined by Zeina Karam, acting Beirut bureau chief for the Associated Press.

And, Zeina, welcome.

This is, I understand, the third straight day of attacks at government-affiliated sites within Damascus, yet the government appears still to remain in control. What is the state of play between the rebels and the government right now in the city?

ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press: Well, yes, as you say, this is the third consecutive day we have seen bombings and mortar shells striking targets inside the Syrian capital.

Now, I do know the Syrian rebels have been trying to push towards Damascus in the past month, but they remain severely outgunned by the Syrian regime. And what these mortar attacks and bombings suggest is that, instead of immediate response, the rebel forces are starting to resort more to attrition and guerrilla tactics to loosen the government’s grip on the capital.

The attacks in the last few days have certainly shattered the sense of normalcy that the Syrian regime has tried to maintain in Damascus.

MARGARET WARNER: Do the rebels control some parts of the city, and, if so, which parts?

ZEINA KARAM: The rebels have footholds and control parts of the southern and the eastern suburbs of Damascus.

In the past month, we have seen rebels try to push their way forward into Damascus from the northeast. And, in fact, they have seized several army checkpoints on the highway linking the capital with northern Syria. But those advances have largely been reversed now. And the government is mostly back in firm control of the capital.

But, in recent days, we have seen the rebels launch mortar attacks from these areas into the central Damascus area.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what can you tell us about the rebels’ overall strategy, I mean for the country, and how key is — do they want to seize control of Damascus? Are they trying to simply drive the Assad regime from power? What is their overall game plan?

ZEINA KARAM: For the rebels, the capital, Damascus, would be the endgame. This is the prize that — this is the seat of the Assad’s government power. And this is what they want to get at.

We have seen after they have lost momentum for a while in recent weeks, the rebels have had some strategic victories across the country. They have been gaining some momentum again and — but, in the bigger picture, they’re still a long way off before they can achieve any true breakthrough, because they remain severely outgunned by the government.

MARGARET WARNER: So, the reports were today that there were a lot of civilians who were the casualties in that big bombing. Has there been any kind of backlash among the population towards some of the tactics employed by at least some of the rebel groups?

ZEINA KARAM: Suspicion formed immediately to the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra group, which has claimed responsibility for similar attacks in the past.

And these — these kind of tactics which can alarm many civilians, they — in a way, they strengthen supporters of Assad, and they make many Syrians distrustful of the rebel movement. But we saw today the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group, they condemned the bombing and they blamed the government indirectly for allowing foreign terrorist groups to operate in Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Zeina Karam of the Associated Press in Beirut, thank you so much.

ZEINA KARAM: You’re welcome.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Online, we have a photo essay dispatched by a Reuters photographer who spent a month on the front lines in Syria.