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Abombing that killed members of President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle as fighting raged in the Syrian capital yesterday increased the urgency for tougher UN action, Western leaders said, a stance rejected by Russia.
Syrian state TV said a “terrorist bombing” had killed Defence Minister Daoud Rajha as well as Assef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law and the deputy defence minister. Several others were wounded.
However, the attack does not signal the president’s imminent downfall, analysts said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the suicide attack, and said it “confirms the urgent need for a Chapter 7 resolution of the UN Security Council on Syria”.
The UN Security Council was due to vote later yesterday on a resolution, proposed by Britain, the US, France and Germany, that would extend a UN observer mission in Syria for 45 days and place international envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.
Chapter 7 allows the 15-member council to authorise actions ranging from diplomatic and economic sanctions to military intervention. US officials have said they are talking about sanctions only on Syria.
“The situation in Syria is clearly deteriorating. All the members of the UN Security Council have a responsibility to put their weight behind the enforcement of joint special envoy Kofi Annan’s plan to end the violence,” Hague said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the bombing “shows us that it is high time to ratify the next UN resolution”.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Paris would push for the resolution. But, with four straight days of fighting in Damascus – some within sight of the presidential palace yesterday – Moscow said the draft resolution would worsen the violence.
“A decisive battle is under way in Syria,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists in Moscow. “It is a dead end policy to support the opposition. Assad will not go on his own and our Western partners don’t know what to do about that.”
Analyst Gala Riani said the suicide bombing was “in some ways the most successful direct attack on the regime we’ve had so far”.
Riani, a Middle East analyst at the Control Risks consultancy, said: “I think the next few days are going to be crucial in signalling where the conflict goes from here. At the very least, we can expect the situation to continue to deteriorate. But I think it will take more than this to take the Assad regime down.”
The brazen attack at a meeting of top security officials and ministers in the heart of Damascus will send a message to the top of the Syrian government that they are vulnerable.
“It sends a stark message that individual ministers are not safe and is likely to accelerate the erosion of the regime’s support base,” said Anthony Skinner, head of Middle East consultancy Maplecroft.
“These are very significant developments, but I believe the offensive will be repelled,” Skinner said. “Psychologically, though, this will likely give the FSA a significant boost and may also precipitate more defections at a senior level.”
The bombing, claimed by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and also by Islamist group Liwa al-Islam, does not alter the fact that the rebels remain hugely outgunned by Assad’s forces.
Liwa al-Islam, an Islamist rebel group whose name means “The Brigade of Islam”, said on its Facebook page
: “We happily inform the people of Syria, and especially the people of the capital, that the National Security Bureau, which includes what is called the crisis management cell, has been targeted with an explosive device by the Sayyed al-Shuhada brigade of Liwa al-Islam. Several regime pillars have been killed.”
The FSA also claimed responsibility for the attack, according to Qassim Saadedine, a spokesman.
“This is the volcano we talked about, we have just started,” he said.
A security source in Syria said a bodyguard for the president’s inner circle had detonated explosives at a meeting of ministers and Assad’s top security and military officials.
A spokesman for Liwa al-Islam confirmed the claim by telephone, but denied that it was a suicide attack.
“Our men managed to plant improvised explosives in the building for the meeting. We had been planning this for over a month.”
Minister of Interior Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar was wounded but stable and intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar was in surgery, according to a Syrian security source.