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Middle East

Shashank Joshi: Don't be surprised that Assad is blaming foreign jihadists


Twenty minutes after two suicide bombs ripped through Damascus, the Syrian government concluded the world's fastest terrorism investigation. The culprit was al-Qa'ida, with Zionist-American backing – vindicating its narrative of an onslaught by foreign jihadists.

President Bashar al-Assad, protector of his country's plethora of minority communities, would have no choice but to crush these Sunni extremists by force.

That's the government's story – but it's riddled with holes. For a start, the timing is suspect. An observer team from the Arab League has just arrived in Syria, tasked with overseeing a withdrawal of government forces from cities. A government that has tortured and slaughtered thousands of its citizens would have little compunction about mounting a false flag operation to justify its crackdown.

Moreover, al-Qa'ida is not known to have an extensive foothold in Syria. Sunni Islamists once waged a bloody six-year insurgency but the regime's massacre at Hama in 1982 put an end to that. In 2008, a suicide bombing in Damascus killed 17 Syrians, yet the perpetrator was never clear. Five years ago, Sunni militants did flood across the Syrian border into Iraq. The state, however, always had a good grip on these flows.

That said, it is plausible that Islamic extremists have decided to exploit Syria's fraught sectarian balance, just as they did in Iraq in 2006. That year, the bombing of a Shia mosque in the city of Samarra sparked off a horrific civil war between Shia and Sunni.

Yesterday's attack in Syria bore the signature of Iraq's violence – the car bomb. Syria would be an appealing target for jihadists.

Sectarian tensions, stoked by the government, are spiralling out of control. In cities such as Homs, tit-for-tat murders between (majority) Sunni and (the ruling minority) Alawite communities are escalating.

Whoever committed these bombings, they have had the unfortunate effect of distracting international attention from the atrocities being perpetrated by the Syrian regime on a daily basis. In north-western Syria this week alone, helicopters and tanks killed at least 160 people.

If the Syrian government bombed its own capital, it indicates its desperate willingness to tear apart the country in a bid for its survival. But if this was the work of international terrorists, attempting to cleave open sectarian faultlines, the prognosis may be every bit as bad.

Shashank Joshi is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London