The violent conflict in Syria took a heartbreaking turn today when a car bomb exploded in the middle of Damascus just as students were leaving a nearby school for the day. Over 50 people were killed and more than 200 injured, many of them children.
It was one of the worst attacks in the Syrian capital since the conflict started two years ago. An estimated 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting between rebels and the forces of President Bashar Assad, who has refused to step down.
Although the bomb struck near the headquarters of the ruling Ba’ath Party and the Russian Embassy, opposition activists claim most of the victims were civilians.
“There are children among the casualties and injuries as the bomb hit near Ibn Al-Atheer school, and at a time students were leaving school,” Iman Al-Huda, an activist who was nearby, told The Daily Telegraph.
Though no group has yet to claim responsibility for the car bomb, observers believe it bears the mark of the jihadist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, which has carried out many attacks in Damascus and other Syrian cities.
Another opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, called the bomb attack “heinous.”
“Any acts targeting civilians with murder or human rights violations are criminal acts that must be condemned, regardless of the perpetrator or the justification,” it said in a statement.
Noting that the car bomb would have had to pass through checkpoints to reach the middle of Damascus, some Syrians said it was the work of Assad’s forces, trying to give the appearance of chaos and instability to justify his brutal crackdown throughout the nation.
This new attack comes as newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry plans to conduct a two-week tour of the Middle East, beginning this weekend. This recent violence shows just how intractable a challenge Syria poses to the west and the countries surrounding it, such as Lebanon and Israel.
A report earlier this week in The New York Times revealed that President Obama is considering providing arms to the rebels fighting Assad, even though he has been reluctant to do so in the past. The world community is split over the conflict, with countries like Russia and Iran backing Assad with weapons and financial support, while Arab nations in the Middle East have been providing support to al Qaida-affiliated rebels.
The U.S. has so far funneled $50 million of nonlethal assistance to the Syrian rebels, including satellite telephones, radios, broadcasting equipment, computers, survival equipment and related training, according to The Times.
But while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others in the White House have advocated sending weapons to the Syrian rebels, Obama has been wary of the possibility that they may one day end up in the hands of U.S. enemies. His position is supported by Vice President Joe Biden and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. It’s not clear where Kerry stands on the issue.
A report in the Los Angeles Times said Russia is sending warships back to the waters near Syria, in a new demonstration of the Kremlin’s interest in the outcome of the crisis.
Four large landing vessels were on their way to the Mediterranean near Syria, just three weeks after the Russian Navy conducted its biggest maneuvers in the region since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“Based on the results of the Navy exercises in the Black and Mediterranean seas from Jan. 19 through Jan. 29 … the ministry leadership has taken a decision to continue combat duty by Russian warships in the Mediterranean,” the ministry said in its statement. “In the future, the number of warships in the group and types of vessels acting in the said region will be defined in accordance with the given situation.”