BEIRUT - Twin suicide car bombs that targeted a notorious military intelligence compound shook the Syrian capital, Damascus, on Thursday, killing and wounding hundreds of people and raising the likelihood of extremist elements propelling the conflict to a more treacherous phase.
It was the largest such terrorist attack since the uprising began 14 months ago, with the Health Ministry putting the toll at 55 dead and nearly 400 wounded - civilians and soldiers. The dual explosions forged a hellish landscape of incinerated corpses, burning vehicles and a billowing plume of smoke visible throughout Damascus.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But the attack put a spotlight on the growing involvement of Islamic jihadists in the fight against the government of President Bashar Assad, particularly those from an Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda that has been agitating to join the fray. That prospect raised fears that Syria was heading into the kind of chaos and bloodletting that plagued Iraq and served as a training ground for terrorists.
“There is no question that Al Qaeda in Iraq has attempted to push into the vacuum in Syria,’’ said Seth G. Jones, a specialist at the RAND Corp. in counterterrorism and Al Qaeda in particular. “They are not a majority part of the opposition, and they are not a leading part of the opposition, but they are there.’’
A broad group of people engaged in the fight in Syria - including opposition activists, community organizers and outside analysts - said they had noticed a jihadi mindset and vocabulary among opposition fighters.
Where accounts of foreign gunmen once seemed to be more rumor than fact, there have been reports of non-Syrians dying in the fight, and statements from some armed elements of the opposition are no longer quite so emphatic that they want foreigners to stay home. Specialists compare what is happening in Syria to similar nascent phases in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and northern Mali, where a radicalized domestic core of fighters, eventually supplemented by foreigners and veterans of other jihadi conflicts, gradually swelled into a dangerous, anarchic insurgency.
Jihadi websites have lit up with discussions for months about the legitimacy of Sunni Muslims fighting the Syrian government dominated by the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, analysts said. Iraqi officials have remarked on a small but distinct migration westward of the jihadis in their midst.
A recent analysis from the International Crisis Group, an independent organization devoted to preventing and resolving deadly conflict, was called “Syria’s Phase of Radicalization.’’
“The fact is that the regime’s behavior has fueled extremists on both sides and, by allowing the country’s slide into chaos, provided them space to move in and operate,’’ the report said. “The fighting came at a huge cost to civilians and, in its aftermath, security forces engaged in widespread abuse, further radicalizing large swaths of society.’’
The attack Thursday sheared the face off the nine-story building of the Palestine Branch of military intelligence, long feared as the headquarters for the surveillance, arrest and torture of government opponents, especially Islamic militants. It was nicknamed “the Sheraton’’ by prisoners because detainees from so many nations had been dragged into it over the years, activists said.
The other building damaged in the compound was the Patrols Branch, responsible for maintaining and dispatching the intelligence vehicles that prowl the Damascus area.
At least 11 soldiers were dead, said a person at the military hospital in the Mezzeh neighborhood, where the bulk of the casualties from the security services were taken. Many of the wounded were local residents cut by flying glass, said one doctor reached by telephone at a government hospital.
“I was preparing to leave when this big explosion went off, then a minute later another, bigger explosion erupted,’’ said Abu Omar, a 40-year-old father of three who lives a few hundred yards from the Qazzar highway intersection where the suicide bombers struck. “Every window in my house broke. I looked out and saw fire and smoke.’’
The explosions went off just before 8 a.m., when the highway was crowded with people driving to work and buses ferrying children to school. The scattered bombings up until now have been either directly in front of security buildings or on Fridays, when not many people are about.
Major General Robert Mood, the Norwegian officer leading the UN observer mission, visited the scene soon after the blasts.
“This is yet another example of the suffering brought upon the people of Syria from acts of violence,’’ Mood said on state television. “We, the world community, are here with the Syrian people, and I call on everyone within and outside Syria to help stop this violence.’’