BEIRUT — Syrian rebels struck deep in the fortress-like inner sanctum of President Bashar Assad’s rule Wednesday in Damascus, detonating two car bombs that engulfed the army headquarters in flames.
The suicide bombings and subsequent gun battles in the Syrian capital killed at least five people, including a reporter for Iranian TV. The carefully orchestrated attacks highlighted the regime’s growing vulnerability, even as the 18-month battle to bring down Assad is locked in a stalemate.
International diplomacy has failed to stop the bloodshed.
Making his debut on the global stage at the United Nations, Egypt’s new President Mohammed Morsi said he will not rest until Syria’s civil war is brought to an end. He called it the “tragedy of the age” and one that “we all must end.”
Morsi has launched an “Islamic Quartet” of regional powers to seek an end to the violence, but he has not offered a specific plan of action.
The explosions targeting the Syrian military compound went off about 10 minutes apart, around 7 a.m., with the first blast possibly meant to create a diversion to enable the second attacker to get into the compound.
Security camera footage aired by Syrian state TV showed a white van driving on a busy thoroughfare outside the military compound, then veering to the right and exploding. The footage showed a second blast going off inside the complex, with flames rising up behind trees.
After the second explosion, rebel fighters and regime forces exchanged fire for more than three hours, including inside the military compound, said Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group. The fighting spilled over into nearby Omayyad Square, with regime troops — some wildly firing in the air — chasing after rebel gunmen, witnesses said.
Syrian state TV reported that four army guards were killed and 14 people were wounded, including civilians and military personnel.
The Iranian English language Press TV said one of its Syrian correspondents, 33-year-old Maya Nasser, was killed by a rebel sniper following the blast. The station replayed Nasser’s last report, in which he was on the phone from Damascus during a live broadcast, when the line suddenly went silent. The Damascus bureau chief for Press TV, Hosein Mortada, was wounded in the clashes.
Abdul-Rahman said the regime was underreporting casualties in an attempt to play down the severity of the attacks.
Fear spread among residents of the nearby Malki area, an upscale district that has largely been sheltered from the battles that usually rage in the city’s impoverished belt of suburbs.
“It is obvious that there are no more safe areas in Syria,” said Hala, a 28-year-old resident who only gave her first name for fear of repercussions. “We are all under fire.”
Rebels have targeted the center of Damascus with bomb attacks in the past, most dramatically in July when they detonated explosives inside a high-level crisis meeting in Damascus that killed four top regime officials, including Assad’s brother-in-law and the defense minister.
However, predictions that such attacks could accelerate the regime’s demise have proven premature, and both sides have dug in, each unable to deliver a knockout blow.
The two sides are deadlocked in the northern battle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. In the western slice of Syria that is most heavily populated, rebels control large swaths of the countryside, while the regime is clinging to urban centers.
Fighting has accelerated over the summer, and the Observatory said the death toll has broken the 30,000 mark, with nearly two-thirds of the casualties reported in the past six months.
The number of people killed rose from about 11,000 by mid-April to 30,109 people as of Wednesday, said the Observatory. Of those, more than two-thirds — or 21,594 — were either civilians who did not take part in the fighting or took up arms to topple the regime. In addition, 7,345 regime soldiers were killed, along with 1,170 army defectors fighting on the side of rebels, he said.
The Observatory, which compiles information from a network of activists in Syria, says it only includes named victims in its count or those whose death was verified by other means, such as amateur video.
Wednesday’s blasts, while potentially demoralizing for the regime, won’t likely shift the momentum in the rebels’ favor, analysts said.
“The rebels are able to penetrate here and there and catch the regime off guard,” said Paul Salem of the Carnegie Middle East Center, a Beirut-based think tank. “It’s an important event, but does not change ... the balance of power, which is right now in a deadly stalemate.”
In Damascus, Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoubi played down the significance of the attacks. “Everything is normal,” he told Syrian state TV. “There was a terrorist act, perhaps near a significant location, yes, this is true, but they failed as usual to achieve their goals.”
Yet for several hours Wednesday, rebels were able to create fear and confusion in the heart of the capital. The explosions set off a huge blaze that engulfed the military complex in flames and sent columns of thick black smoke over Damascus for several hours.
The blasts shattered windows of the Dama Rose hotel and other nearby buildings, as well as windshields of parked cars. Footage by another state-run TV channel, Ikhbariya, showed heavy damage inside the compound, with glass shards scattered across the floor and broken ceiling tiles.
Witnesses reported heavy gunfire for hours near Omayyad Square and the military compound. One witness reported seeing panicked soldiers shooting in the air randomly as they ran. A group of army soldiers standing outside the buildings shouted pro Assad slogans, including: “Shabiha, forever, for your eyes, Oh Assad!” in reference to pro-regime militiamen.
The Syrian army said “terrorists” — a term the regime routinely uses for the rebels — in the area opened random fire at the same time as the bombings to scare people. The army said authorities were pursuing the gunmen.
The rebels’ Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the attacks, which came just a day after a Damascus school used by regime forces, according to activists, was bombed Tuesday, wounding several people.
Damascus has been targeted repeatedly by the rebels. Previous bombings raised concerns that the al-Qaida terror network is becoming increasingly active in Syria. Jebhat al-Nusra, an extremist Syrian group, claimed responsibility for many of them.
Also Wednesday, the Observatory and another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said dozens of bodies were found in the southern Damascus suburb of Thiyabiyeh. The reports could not be independently confirmed because of strict restrictions on foreign media.
The Observatory said 40 bodies, including some of women and children, were discovered, but it was not clear under which circumstances the victims were killed.
Another group of activists, the Local Coordination Committees, said 107 bodies were found, including women and children killed execution-style. It said the dead included nine members of the Al-Rifaie family whose throats were slit.
An amateur video, which could not be verified, showed the bodies of 18 men lined up on the floor of a room, some of them with marks of deep wounds.