- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 4, 2012

BEIRUT — An al Qaeda-inspired group claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks across Syria, the latest evidence that extremists are exploiting the chaos to make inroads in another Middle Eastern country.


The Syrian regime has long blamed terrorists for the 16-month-old revolt, and the presence of al Qaeda groups creates new difficulties for Arab and Western countries trying to help force President Bashar Assad from power.

The opposition and the rebel Free Syrian Army deny having any links to terrorism, and say they do not have the desire or the capabilities to carry out massive suicide bombings and other al Qaeda-style attacks.

On Tuesday, the SITE monitoring group, which tracks jihadist chatter on the Internet, said the Al-Nusra Front released statements on extremist websites in late June claiming the attacks were to avenge the killings of Syrians by the government.

One of the attacks targeted a pro-regime television station in the town of Drousha, south of the capital, Damascus, on June 27. Seven people were killed in the attack on Al-Ikhbariya TV.

Al-Nusra said the station is an arm of the regime and the attack sought to make the station “taste from the cup of torture” and force every member of the regime to wonder: “When will my turn come?” The statement included photos of 11 men it said were kidnapped in the attack.

Al-Ikhbariya is privately owned but often acts as a regime mouthpiece.

Other attacks in the latest claim of responsibility include dozens of armed raids and bombings — including suicide bombings — in Syrian cities.

Little is known about Al-Nusra, although Western intelligence officials say it could be a front for a branch of al Qaeda militants from Iraq operating in Syria. The group has claimed responsibility for a string of attacks in Syria, including suicide bombings, in the past.

In February, al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri called on Muslims to support Syrian rebels.

“Wounded Syria is still bleeding day after day, and the butcher (Bashar Assad) isn’t deterred and doesn’t stop,” al-Zawahri said at the time. He took over al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces last May.

Although the Syrian opposition disavows links to terror, the presence of al Qaeda among the forces fighting to oust Assad is a serious complicating factor for the international powers that say they want to help the opposition without empowering extremists along the way.

The Syrian regime is dominated by members of the Alawite sect, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Sunnis make up most of the population of 22 million and are the backbone of the opposition.

Assad has been able to count on backing from powerful allies like Russia and Iran. On Wednesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Syrians should decide their own fate. According to his Internet website, Ahmadinejad told the visiting speaker of the Syrian parliament that others must not impose their will on Syria.

More than 14,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising began, according to activists. Despite global outrage over the crackdown by the Assad regime, the international response has been focused entirely on diplomacy and sanctions as the violence escalates.

Military intervention has been all but ruled out in Syria for now, in part because the conflict has so much potential for escalation. Damascus has strong allegiances to powerful forces including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Shiite powerhouse Iran.

There already are signs of a looming, regional conflict.

Syrian forces shot down a Turkish military plan on June 22. Syria says the plane violated its airspace, but Turkey said the plane was hit over international waters.

On Wednesday, Turkey’s state-run TRT television said a U.S. deep-sea exploration vessel, E/V Nautilus, discovered the bodies of the two pilots.

The violence in Syria has grown increasingly chaotic over the course of the uprising, which began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests. Government forces launched a ferocious crackdown on the demonstrations, leading many people to take up arms.

The violence has become widespread and chaotic. Besides the government crackdown, rebel fighters are launching increasingly deadly attacks on regime targets, and several massive suicide attacks this year suggest al Qaeda or other extremists are joining the fray.

Syria severely restricts the media in the country, making it difficult to gain a credible account of events on the ground.

There is virtually no way to perform an independent investigation in Syria, one of the most authoritarian states in the Middle East. Assad has largely sealed off the country and prevented reporters from moving freely. A team of around 300 U.N. monitors was sent to Syria to provide an unbiased look at the violence, but they have been confined to their hotels since June 15 because of the worsening violence.

On Wednesday, the head of the U.N. observer mission called on all sides to stop fighting — even as activists reported government shelling in five provinces across Syria.

“There is this feeling that there is too much talk in nice hotels, in nice meetings, and too little action to move forward and stop the violence,” Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood told reporters in Damascus.

In Geneva on Saturday, an international conference of world powers accepted a U.N.-brokered peace plan for Syria. But the group left open the key question of whether Assad could be part of a transitional government.

The U.S. backed away from insisting that the plan explicitly exclude Assad from any role in a new Syrian government, hoping the concession would encourage Russia to put greater pressure on its longtime ally to end the violent crackdown.

But the possibility that Assad could stay made the plan a nonstarter for those fighting to topple his regime.

The opposition, too, is in disarray. A key meeting of different opposition groups in Cairo concluded Tuesday with only general agreements on a transitional period and the character of the post-Assad state.

They failed to create a unified leadership and papered over many other key differences.

Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi contributed from Tehran.

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