A massive bomb blast rocked Damascus yesterday as pressure mounted on the regime, with the world’s largest pan-Islamic bloc poised to suspend Syria over the unrelenting violence.
The US also accused Iran of setting up a pro-regime militia in Syria as Washington increasingly ties the conflict that is now in its 18th month to interference by long-time foe Tehran.
The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) claimed it was behind the bomb attack, which it said targeted a military meeting taking place near the hotel used by the UN observer mission in Syria.
“There was a huge explosion and a fireball, and soldiers were thrown to the ground by the blast,” a military officer at the scene said, adding that five people suffered burns or shrapnel wounds.
Damascus has been hit by several bomb blasts, including an attack last month that killed four of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s top security chiefs and was also claimed by the FSA.
Meanwhile, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which represents 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, was poised to suspend Syria at an emergency summit yesterday in a move opposed by Iran, a staunch ally of al-Assad’s increasingly embattled regime.
The move by the OIC is aimed at further isolating al-Assad’s regime over a conflict that activists say has now claimed more than 23,000 lives and has sent hundreds of thousands fleeing, but its effect is seen as largely symbolic.
Syria was suspended from the Arab League last year over its crackdown on the Arab Spring-inspired uprising that al-Assad has characterized as a plot by Western and rival Sunni powers to overthrow his Alawite-led regime.
Tensions have been simmering between Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Shiite-dominated Iran as Syria has emerged as another arena for the longtime rivalry between the two regional heavyweights.
Iran’s archfoe the US on Tuesday accused Tehran of setting up a militia in Syria and urged it to stay out of the conflict.
“It is obvious that Iran has been playing a larger role in Syria in many ways,” US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said at a press conference.
He said the US has evidence that Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards were “trying to develop, trying to train a militia within Syria to be able to fight on behalf of the regime.”
“We are seeing a growing presence by Iran and that is of deep concern to us. We do not think that Iran ought to play that role at this moment in time, that’s dangerous ... It’s adding to the killing that’s going on in Syria,” he said.
Further undermining the regime, former Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab, the highest profile government figure to defect, said on Tuesday that the power structure in Syria was disintegrating.
“The Syrian regime only controls 30 percent of Syria’s territory. It has collapsed militarily, economically and morally,” Hijab told a press conference in Amman.
The US, which has imposed a raft of tough sanctions to try to force al-Assad’s departure, reacted by lifting an asset freeze imposed on Hijab in a move it said was aimed at encouraging similar defections.
Western policymakers hope a wave of defections would bring the collapse of the autocratic government, ending a conflict that seems to be in stalemate.