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Syria’s Claims Over ‘Unusual’ Bombings in Damascus Draw Much Skepticism

December 23, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Two bombs erupted in Syria's capital Friday, killing at least 47 people and wounding more than 150, but many activists and regional analysts are skeptical of the Assad government's claims that al-Qaida is behind them. Ray Suarez gets an update on the bombings and the ongoing protests in Syria from NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut.
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on developments in Syria, we turn to NPR’s Deborah Amos in Beirut. She’s been covering the Syrian uprising and regularly speaks with members of the opposition inside Syria, as well as those who fled the country.

Deborah, we just saw the scenes of terrible carnage outside two of the country’s most feared and powerful intelligence services. Are suicide bombs of this kind an unusual event for Syria?

DEBORAH AMOS, NPR: Very unusual, in particular in one of the most protected pieces of real estate in the capital.

This is the security service headquarters – there’s two of them. And activists said to me today in conversations, some of them have actually served time there. There are jails there. And they say, you can’t walk near that building. You can’t drive a car near that building. So this is all very unusual, that there would be two car bombs aimed at these security service centers in Damascus.

RAY SUAREZ: So what’s the implication, that the attack was some sort of setup or not genuinely a surprise to those inside the building?

DEBORAH AMOS: I think there’s been a lot of skepticism both from the activists and also from regional analysts, who say that the Syrians were very quick to blame this on al-Qaeda. Almost within 15 minutes to a half-an-hour after the events, Syrian TV said it was al-Qaida.

This does fit into the government narrative. And they have been saying for months that there is no popular uprising in the country. What this is, is an attack by armed militants, armed gangs, al-Qaida, a foreign plot.

And so today, this was their story. And this was the way that Syrian television played this story, that this proves what we have been saying all along, that armed gangs are trying to attack Syria.

RAY SUAREZ: Is al-Qaida a plausible suspect? Has it been active inside the country?

DEBORAH AMOS: It has not.

There have been jihadi groups in Syria. Let’s remember, just a few years ago, this was a place that Washington said that jihadis were coming across the border to go Iraq. Some of those people didn’t leave. Some of those people are still in Syria. But al-Qaida has not played a role inside Syria.

And so that’s why this was all so unusual, to watch these two giant bombs go off today. And I think that’s why there were so many questions outside of the country. Washington certainly condemned what it called a terrorist act and said that they would condemn any terrorist act. But they also called on the Arab League to do their job.

Monitors are in the country this week, or at least an advance team to set up the monitors in the country. Those monitors or the advance team were brought to the bomb site today by a high official from the foreign Ministry, who said to them, you see? This is what we’ve always said, that these are terrorists that are after Syria.

And so it gives a bit of a bad start to this monitoring group to have this happen on a day a giant bomb in Damascus.

RAY SUAREZ: Along with that bombing in Damascus, images and stories have begun to emerge about targeted villages in parts of Syria with tremendous loss of civilian life. Tell us more about those.

DEBORAH AMOS: Well, what we have is a reported massacre in a small village in northern Syria.

Anywhere between 60 and 100 people apparently were killed there. The army surrounded the town and shelled the town, machine-gunned civilians inside the town, according to residents who survived and activists. And, apparently, this was a village that was harboring army defectors.

And that seems to be what sparked some of the most horrific incidents in this 10-month-old uprising in northern Syria. We have reports of actually two massacres, one of a group of men who were defecting from the army. It appeared that they were on their way to the Turkish border and they were surrounded.

And then this village up near a town called Idlib — it’s up in the mountainous part of Syria near the border. We are beginning to see videos, just got out last night. The electricity there has been off. The phone communications have been down, but we did see videos over the last 24 hours of bodies laid out in mosques there, men who had name tags, really rough name tags — it looked like notebook paper — taped — cellophane taped onto their bodies.

And the cell phone cameras pans across dozens of bodies from this village. In some ways, Ray, this seems like we are at a new phase in the Syrian crisis. We have had some of the largest casualty totals over the past week. We have a reported al-Qaida bomb in the middle of the capital. And now we have this advance team from the Arab League. It certainly has changed the dynamics of what is happening in Syria this week.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the advance team has seen the damage in Damascus.

Given the rules of engagement with the Arab League, what’s the likelihood that they will head up north to Kfar Owaid and Idlib?

DEBORAH AMOS: Well, that is a good question.

And that is exactly what the advance team is in Damascus to do. Those details have not been worked out. And there are some very serious questions. Who provides security? Is it the Syrian government or is it the Arab League? Who provides the cars? When is it to be announced that these monitored teams will go somewhere? Do they have to announce to the Syrian government where they’re going?

That is what the team is there to sort out. Can they go to the North? I think we have to wait and see. The first monitors are said to arrive over the weekend. Some of them are veteran human rights campaigners in the Middle East. And these people have made some stipulations about what they want to see happen, so that this monitoring team stays transparent, is able to see for itself what’s going on, on the ground.

RAY SUAREZ: NPR’S Deborah Amos in Beirut — Deb, thanks for joining us.

DEBORAH AMOS: Thanks, Ray.