Early Wednesday morning, as the Damascus suburb of Jaramana was coming to life, a car bomb in a parking lot near commercial buildings ripped through the neighborhood—and as residents rushed to help the wounded, another blast struck. Dozens of people were reportedly killed, with scores more injured, in what appeared to be a well-coordinated attack on the eastern enclave of the capital that is home to many Druze and Christians.
“The first blast was loud,” said a Damascus-based activist who goes by the nickname Alexia Jade, and who had spoken with Jaramana residents and witnesses at the scene. “People hurried to the place and when there was a good crowd, the other car exploded. There were many bodies on the ground. People went crazy, [worried] for their children in school.”
Then, added Jade, “State TV crashed in for the usual ‘armed gangs’ report.”
Bombs targeting civilians have become a regular part of Syria’s conflict. Unlike rebel bombings that strike government targets—and unlike airstrikes from military warplanes—it’s hard to tell for sure which side is behind the attacks. The bombings are never claimed, and so regular Syrians struggle to figure out who is to blame.
After Wednesday’s blasts, both the rebels and the government of President Bashar al-Assad rushed to finger the other as the culprit. The government and its aligned media blamed “terrorists” for the attack. Many Jaramana residents are known to be pro-Assad. The government, meanwhile, has long accused the rebels of being foreign-backed agents of terror, even when the uprising was still a peaceful protest movement, and has sought to fan fears of extremism as justification for its crackdowns. Today on one pro-government Facebook group, called the Jaramana News Network, a member posted, “This is the terrorists’ strategy, to make one bomb explode, and when everyone gathers to see what happened, the other one goes off.”
The post had a link to a picture featuring the tagline: “Jaramana won’t kneel.”
Meanwhile, the opposition dismissed the government’s claims, saying the government itself orchestrated the bombing in order to paint the rebels as extremists. The main rebel military council of Damascus released a statement soon after the bombings blaming the violence on Assad’s government. Independent analysts, in the past, have tended to agree that it’s most likely government forces or their aligned militias that are behind blasts that target civilians, playing a double game—a tactic in what Ahed al-Hendi, a former student activist from Damascus who now works for Cyberdissidents.org, called the Assad government’s “campaign of fear.”
Rebels said the government could be trying to fan sectarian fears and turn the tide of public opinion against the opposition. “Jaramana is a calm area full of different ethnicities and sects—Druze and Christians—and this was the government’s attempt to ignite the area by making [residents] feel that they are under threat from Salafi Islamists,” said a Damascus-based spokesman for the rebel military council, Nabil al-Ameer. “The regime wants all the minorities to stand with it and make them believe the regime is their protector and that all revolutionaries are extremists.”
Islamic extremism has been growing more prevalent in the rebellion’s ranks.
One Jaramana resident—who asked not to be named out of fear of reprisals—said she felt caught up in the message war. She lives right next to one of the hospitals that received many of the bombing victims. The woman, who is unaffiliated with either side in the conflict, thought the government was behind the attacks—and also to blame for similar violence that has hit the area in the past. Though Jaramana does support Assad, she said, it has also been generous in helping refugees from other parts of the bombarded city. She also noted that many residents have started to question whether they could count on the government to bring Syria’s civil war to an end. The government, she thought, wanted to make sure Jaramana stayed firmly on its side, using the bombing “to tell people: ‘look, the fundamentalists want to destroy your lives and take over your lovely homogenous community.”
Yet the woman knew many of her neighbors disagree with her, and instead suspect the rebels are to blame. “Most of Jaramana’s people are Islamophobic,” she said. “And most of them think the rebels are behind this, since rebels and fundamentalist Islam are linked to each other by the regime, the media, and sometimes by stupid rebels themselves.”
Even by the accounts of many rebel leaders, Islamic extremism has been growing more prevalent in the rebellion’s ranks. Groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra have taken the lead in executing a number of successful attacks on government targets, and they’ve even claimed suicide bombings, including one in Aleppo that killed civilians this past September. Though Jabhat al-Nusra never says that it is targeting civilians directly—the September attack was aimed at a building used by government forces—even some longtime opposition members say they’re starting to wonder whether the extremists could indeed by behind bombings like the one in Jaramana.
Rami Nakhla, an activist who was at the vanguard of Syria’s protest movement, said he believes the attacks were carried out by rebel extremists, in order to target local armed youth loyal to the government who had been working to keep the rebels out of the area. “Nobody needs proof any more that al Qaeda, Salafist, and jihadist groups are at work in Syria,” Nakhla said. “Why Jaramana? First of all, why not? Car bombing is widespread all over Syria, and it would be strange not to see it in Jaramana. And the fact that it’s a Druze and Christian area puts it under the spotlight.”
The struggle to assign blame for the bombing is yet another sign of Syria’s bitter divide, said Hendi, the former student dissident. The fault lines have penetrated down from members of the government and the opposition to regular households, he said, who are increasingly aligning themselves with either side. Hendi pointed out that after the bombing, Syrians quickly took to Facebook to post comments or statuses that blindly attributed to the attack to one side or the other. “There are claims of absolutely evil in the opposition, and the same from the other side in the regime,” he said. “This shows you how the country is split.”