On the anniversary of Syria's uprising, suicide bombers strike at the heart of Damascus

The suicide bomber came dressed in military fatigues and armed with a gun and a grenade, according to Syrian state media. He waded into the crowds entering Damascus’s old Palace of Justice on Wednesday and detonated his bomb just inside the door.

The resulting blast killed at least 31 people and wounded roughly 60 more, according to pro-government media. It also delivered a message to the heart of the nation’s capital — that, six years to the day after the start of anti-government uprisings against President Bashar Assad, nowhere in Syria is safe.

While parts of Damascus have been ravaged by the war, and some outlying sections are held by rebels, the Old CIty where the courthouse is located had been, until recently, largely a refuge from the devastation. The many checkpoints clogging the quarter, along with the occasional thud of distant explosions, had been the only outward reminders that Syria is a combat zone.

The bombing was carried out at a time of peak traffic in the building, located next to the capital’s famed Hamidiyah market. Police stopped the attacker at the building’s entrance, searched him and took his grenade and gun.

That was when he flung himself inside and detonated his explosive vest.

A few hours later, security forces pursued another suicide bomber in Al-Rabweh, a verdant block of restaurants nestled near Damascus’ Barada River. In recent years, it has become Damascenes’ sole reminder of the pastoral beauty of the Ghouta, the farmlands that once formed the country’s breadbasket but now are under the control of anti-government rebels.

The bomber ran into a restaurant. An explosion soon followed, state media said. Official casualty figures have not yet been released, but reports said at least 37 people were killed. Dozens more were wounded.

The attacks, coming at the heels of other recent bombings in areas of the capital that were once considered safe, were a stark reminder of how much Syria has been shattered.

“Today, in a sense, the entire country has become a torture chamber, a place of savage horror and absolute injustice,” said U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Raad Hussein.

State media broadcast images depicting the aftermath of the blast at the Palace of Justice. Blood streaked the marble flooring of the building’s interior, where a corner shack with a photocopier barely stood, its thin walls perforated by shrapnel. Other images showed patients in the Mujtahid hospital, where many of the casualties had been taken.

No group immediately claimed responsibility, but a double suicide attack on Saturday on a historic cemetery near Damascus’ Old City was claimed by the Organization for the Liberation of Syria, the former Al Qaeda affiliate once known as the Nusra Front.

What began as part of the Arab Spring uprisings has since devolved into a vicious proxy war that has killed more than 350,000 people, with some estimating a toll of half a million. Much of the country is ravaged, and millions of refugees have streamed into neighboring countries as well as to Europe.

“As the conflict enters its seventh year, this is the worst man-made disaster the world has seen since World War II,” Hussein, the U.N. commissioner, said in a statement Tuesday.

And yet it has “had little or no impact on the global leaders whose influence could help bring about an end to the fighting.”

Syria itself appears on the cusp of fragmentation. The conflict has spawned a dizzying array of groups, all vying for an enclave within its now unstable borders.

Syrian society, meanwhile, appears to have been irreparably damaged. On Wednesday, many on social media hailed the bombings as a celebration of the “revolution” against Assad.

But pro-government commentators, many of whom call the uprising the “Fawra,” a derogatory term for “outburst,” insisted otherwise.

Under the hashtag #Not_a_revolution, they uploaded a poster depicting a suicide bomber drawn on the dirty beige background of a wall — a reference to the anti-government graffiti daubed on the walls of the city of Daraa that sparked the uprising in 2011.

“The revolution that celebrates the anniversary of its launch with a terrorist bombing is not a revolution,” says the poster.

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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UPDATES:

1:05 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting and a revised death toll.

6:15 a.m.: This article was updated with more details about the Palace of Justice bombing, as well as context of the geopolitical situation in Syria.

This article was originally published at 5 a.m.

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