Explosions struck two security facilities Feb. 10 in Aleppo, Syria, severely damaging the Military Security Branch headquarters and a police station in the al-Orkoub area. According to the Syrian Health Ministry, the attacks killed at least 28 individuals, including civilians, and wounded 235 others.
The twin blasts were the first large-scale attacks in Aleppo, but they follow a number of other increasingly sophisticated attacks since November 2011 targeting the Syrian government's military and security infrastructure throughout the country. Immediately following the bombings, the Syrian regime accused armed "terrorists" of carrying out the attacks and posted graphic footage of the blasts' aftermath on state television. Though Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels denied responsibility (and in fact accused the government of staging the attacks itself as a way to undermine the rebels) the group or one of its offshoots likely did conduct the strikes. And its denial was likely motivated by concerns that charges of terrorism may make it more difficult for the group to win support from foreign powers in its struggle against the Syrian government.
The damage caused by the two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Aleppo was substantial, and in one location, the IED managed to rip through and flatten a steel-reinforced concrete perimeter wall and significantly damage the facade of one of the targeted security headquarters roughly 100 feet away. The amount of explosive material necessary for an explosion of this magnitude would be anywhere between 500 and 1,000 pounds. This amount of material could not be clandestinely transported without the use of an automobile or truck, which supports Syrian state media reports that the attack was conducted using a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED).
The perpetrators of the attacks appear to have been operationally sophisticated and capable of executing the steps of the "attack cycle." These steps consist of selecting the target, planning the operation, deploying personnel, staging the attack and exploiting media coverage. A group must be able to conduct extensive surveillance throughout the phases, acquire the explosive materials, successfully build the devices in a clandestine manner without alerting the authorities, and then have the device function as designed. The fact that they were able to successfully complete each of those steps despite a heavy security presence in Aleppo indicates these attacks were carried out by a skilled group with a high level of tradecraft.
The Feb. 10 bombings are not the first of their kind in the Syrian uprising. Attacks on hardened security targets began Nov. 16, when defectors reportedly fired shoulder-launched rockets at the Syrian Directorate for Air Force Intelligence facility near Damascus. The trend continued Dec. 23 when twin bombings took place in Damascus targeting two branches of Syria's Office of the Security Directorate, followed by a suicide bombing in Damascus on Jan. 6. In attacking Aleppo and Damascus — two traditional strongholds and economic centers for the government — the parties responsible were likely trying to convey that the regime's defenses are much weaker than previously thought. Furthermore, attacks directed against intelligence headquarters are specifically intended to demonstrate that even the backbone of the Syrian regime is not safe from attack.
It is likely that FSA rebels or individuals associated with the FSA were behind the most recent attacks as well as those recorded since November 2011. There are indications that elements within the FSA are receiving at least some training and military support from foreign backers, which likely has contributed to the capabilities seen in the IED attacks. The FSA's motivation in launching such attacks is not only to inflict damage on government installations and personnel but also to elicit a harsher crackdown from the Syrian regime. A brutal crackdown would likely attract even greater international attention and cause a humanitarian crisis, which could prompt foreign military intervention — an FSA goal since its inception.
Denying responsibility for the attacks, opposition activists and members of the FSA said the government facilities were heavily protected and no cars are permitted to park in the area. And accusing the government of staging the attacks has been a common FSA response since the first attack on a security facility in November 2011. The opposition's motivation for denying responsibility and blaming the government is to avoid being portrayed as a terrorist movement, a charge the government has leveled against the opposition since the unrest began.
It is very unlikely the Syrian regime staged this attack on its own facilities. There would be little benefit to gain from such a move, other than another opportunity to call the opposition "terrorists." After the attack, gruesome images of dismembered corpses were immediately posted on the Syrian state media website in efforts to elicit a visceral reaction and convince Syrians and outside observers that the opposition movement should not be supported. Whoever was responsible, any attack on the security facilities harms the Syrian regime by raising serious questions about the strength of Syria's internal security apparatus, which is central to the regime's ability to hold power.
There is no reason to believe attacks on hardened security infrastructure will cease any time soon, nor will the propaganda war over who was responsible. The regime will try to respond by cracking down on the opposition movement where it can while avoiding the kind of overreaction that could invite foreign intervention.