A suicide bombing that killed members of President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle as fighting raged in the Syrian capital on Wednesday increased the urgency for tougher United Nations action, Western leaders said, a stance rejected by Russia.
Syria’s army said it would “continue fighting terrorism” after a suicide bombing at the National Security headquarters in Damascus killed two top regime officials on Wednesday.
“The terrorist act increases the armed forces’ determination to cleanse the country of terrorist groups,” the army said in a statement, according to AFP.
Two rebel Syrian groups claimed responsibility for the explosion in Damascus, hailing it as a successful strike at the heart of the government.
Liwa al-Islam, an Islamist rebel group whose name means “The Brigade of Islam,” said in a statement on its Facebook page that it had “targeted the cell called the crisis control room in the capital of Damascus.”
The Free Syrian Army 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.
The bomb that killed Syria’s defense minister and Assad’s brother-in-law will weaken morale and might accelerate high-level defections, but does not signal the president's imminent downfall, analysts said.
Russia demanded the arrest and strict punishment of those behind a Damascus “act of terror” that killed at least two top Syrian security officials in a suicide bombing.
“We expect the organizers of the act of terror in Damascus to be identified and for them to face their deserved punishment,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed in a phone call Wednesday to work together to find a solution to the worsening crisis in Syria, the White House said.
“They noted the differences our governments have had on Syria, but agreed to have their teams continue to work toward a solution,” the White House statement said, referring to a peaceful “political transition.”
However, the Kremlin said that Putin and Obama were unable to solve their differences on Syria in a phone conversation after the Damascus bombing.
“Differences in approaches remain that concern practical steps in achieving a settlement,” Russian news agencies quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying.
The White House said that the “window is closing” to find a peaceful solution to the violence in Syria and added it did not know the whereabouts of President Assad.
“The window is closing, we need to take action in a unified way to help bring about the transition that the Syrian people so deserve,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a news conference.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the suicide attack, and said it “confirms the urgent need for a Chapter 7 resolution of the U.N. Security Council on Syria.”
The U.N. Security Council delayed a vote that was scheduled on Wednesday on a resolution, proposed by Britain, the United States, France and Germany, that would extend a U.N. observer mission in Syria for 45 days and place international envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter.
Chapter 7 allows the 15-member council to authorize actions ranging from diplomatic and economic sanctions to military intervention. U.S. officials have said they are talking about sanctions on Syria, not military intervention.
“The situation in Syria is clearly deteriorating. All the members of the U.N. 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 U.N. resolution.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Paris would push for the resolution. “Given this degree of violence, it means that it is necessary and urgent to find a political transition that allows the Syrian people to have a government that expresses its aspirations.”
But, with four straight days of fighting in Damascus -- some within sight of the presidential palace on Wednesday -- 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.”
“I think the next few days are going to be crucial in signaling where the conflict goes from here,” said Riani, a Middle East analyst at the Control Risks consultancy.
“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.
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.
“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.”