The scenes of carnage on the streets of Damascus on Thursday, following two car bombings in the heart of the city, are unfortunately becoming familiar after the 14-month clampdown by the regime in which no one has been spared. But these blasts, by far the largest since protests began, signal a worsening trend that should serve as a wake-up call for the Syrian opposition.
Each side blames the other for this latest attack. Security experts say the blasts bear the hallmarks of Al Qaeda bombings in Iraq; on Friday, a shadowy group calling itself Al Nusra Front, thought to be associated with Al Qaeda, claimed responsibility. Certainly, the regime is eager to portray itself as in a battle against terrorism.
The legitimate opposition in the Syrian National Council, on the other hand, accuses the regime of being involved, directly or indirectly. That kind of false-flag operation, regardless of the civilian toll, is well within the regime's range of action.
Simple justice makes it important to determine who carried out Thursday's murders. But regardless of who was responsible in this case, there clearly is a growing extremist wing to the anti-Assad camp that undermines the opposition and emboldens the regime. The regime draws strength from the fears of ordinary Syrians, many of whom come from the religious minorities and fear a sectarian bloodbath. President Bashar Al Assad has pushed the country to this breaking point, but that does not necessarily diminish support for him.
Many influential figures inside Syria, and across the region, view the conflict through a sectarian prism. Some religious figures have issued statements permitting indiscriminate killing in the battle against the Baathist regime; one Saudi cleric, Saleh Al Lahaidan, said it was permissible to kill one third of the Syrian population so the other two thirds could live. There are television shows, in particular one hosted by the Salafist cleric Adnan Arour, that promote a sectarian discourse.
These views do not represent the pro-democracy uprising, but the failure to condemn them will help the regime.
As the UN ceasefire plan shows negligible progress, the worsening bloodshed makes any peaceful solution more unlikely. The opposition must understand that it is part of the problem by failing to unify and become more inclusive. At the weekend, a committee in charge of restructuring the Syrian National Council said it had failed because council members had resisted the move.
The opposition has a duty to come together in one voice and distance itself from extremists. There must be an alternative to the Assads, and it cannot be terrorists.