BEIRUT — The detonation of a massive car bomb on Thursday near the heart of Damascus underscored a major shift that has brought sustained fighting close to the center of the capital for the first time during Syria’s two-year-old uprising.
It was unclear who was responsible for the attack, which killed at least 50 people and wounded more than 200 near the headquarters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Baath Party, activists and the official media said. But it marked one of the deadliest strikes yet in Damascus, where rebels have recently increased their pressure, with brazen daylight attacks on military checkpoints in the center of the city and what rebel fighters said were two mortar attacks aimed at Assad’s palaces.
Opposition activists say at least 31 people have been killed in a car bomb attack in Damascus near the headquarters of the ruling Baath party and the Russian Embassy.
Timeline: Major events in the country’s tumultuous uprising that began in March 2011.
After two weeks of clashes, some of the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods have become desolate landscapes. Residents hunker down inside buildings with sporadic electricity and little food as the Syrian military hammers civilian areas with artillery and aerial raids, ordinary Syrians
and opposition activists say. Snipers rule the streets in other neighborhoods, taking potshots at anyone who crosses their path.
Rebels have launched some striking attacks in the capital before: four top security officials, including Assad’s brother-in-law, were killed in a bomb attack in July. But only recently have they demonstrated an ability to attack and hold territory even closer to the heart of Damascus.
Still, neither side appears to have built up decisive momentum. Instead, both sides seem to be digging in for a long showdown, a new and bloody phase of the conflict that could lead to the destruction of vast swaths of Damascus, devastation similar to what fighting has done in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its commercial center.
“The fight for Damascus is far from over,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Does it mean the regime is in good shape? No. But I don’t think a rapid collapse is going to happen.”
Rebels had fought mostly on the periphery of the capital for months, including heavy clashes in December near the international airport, more than five miles from the city center. But this month’s clashes have been concentrated primarily in the eastern and southern suburbs of Damascus, Sunni-dominated areas that have long supported the opposition. And the deadly bombing of the Baath Party building in the city center showed that the violence is spreading beyond those areas and into the heart of the capital.
Also on Thursday, two car bombs targeted a security facility in the Barzeh neighborhood, killing at least 10 soldiers and three civilians, according to opposition groups. No rebel groups asserted responsibility for those attacks.
The Syrian government and rebel forces accused each other of carrying out the attack on the party headquarters, which killed mostly civilians. But the Syrian government has often denied reports of rebel advances in the capital, saying such claims were “intended to lift the morale of the terrorists.”