Car bomb hits near Russian embassy, Assad power base in Damascus

If Syrian rebels wanted to send a message to Bashar Assad’s allies as well as the regime, they succeeded today. Rebels conducted a suicide-bomb attack on a checkpoint in Damascus, near both the Russian embassy and the regime’s Ba’ath Party headquarters. But there may be a message for more than just Assad and Russia, as CBS points out:

A car bomb shook central Damascus on Thursday, exploding near the headquarters of the ruling Baath party and the Russian Embassy, eyewitnesses and opposition activists said.

Syrian state TV also reported the blast in the central Mazraa neighborhood, calling it a “terrorist” attack. It did not say what caused the explosion but reported that there were casualties and that the wounded included four children.

Despots facing popular revolts like to use the word “terrorism” to explain away the rebellions they instigate. In this case, though, it’s probably not far from the truth. The tactic should be familiar at least in concept to Americans who paid attention to the war in Iraq, especially in the near-civil war that al-Qaeda instigated in 2006-7. The groups in Syria that launched this attack may be at least aligned with AQ, and possibly linked explicitly to them. One point in particular sounds very familiar:

One Syrian source told Baghdadi a second car wired up with explosives was found at the scene but did not detonate. That claim could not immediately be verified, but if there was a secondary device set to explode with or after the initial bomb, it could suggest involvement by a salafist Islamic militant group. It is a tactic often used by groups which share motives, and in some cases links, to al Qaeda.

Some of the most effective groups of militants battling to topple Assad’s regime are salafist, including the al Nusra Brigades, which is believed to include former al Qaeda in Iraq fighters from across the border. Several large bombings in Damascus have been blamed on the group.

This is why the Obama administration has been reluctant to aid the rebellion. After having been burned in Libya, the newfound skepticism over “freedom fighters” is almost certainly warranted.  While Assad has been nothing but a bad actor in the region, it might get worse if al-Nusra or other salafist groups take control.  At least this time it seems like we recognize that we have nothing but bad options on the table, and our best play may be not to make one.

Of course, that portends a very long fight between the two sides.  CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh shows how the war in Syria has managed to carve up the country.  Rebels are close to controlling the north and are contesting Damascus, and Jurs have taken control of a significant part of the northeast.  However, the Assad regime still controls enough of the country — especially on the Mediterranean side — to keep fighting for control.  Don’t expect this to be over soon, unless Assad decides to bail out for a retirement package offered by moderate Sunni Arab nations looking to wrest control away from the Islamists currently leading the rebellion.