Image Credit: Hugo A. SancHez/©Gulf News

The two suicide car bombs in Damascus on May 10 were an alarming development. Before last December, suicide bombs were unheard of in Syria. Now there have been 10 such attacks, becoming increasingly deadly — 55 died in the latest atrocity; and another attack was thwarted in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, where a suicide bomber in a carwash killed five on May 5.

Damascus and Aleppo are home to Syria's business and professional classes, who have not, in general, participated in the uprising, tending to remain loyal to Al Assad regime. The suicide bombs have targeted government buildings, the security services and the ruling Baath party's headquarters. While many civilians died in the blasts, significant numbers of security personnel have also been killed.

None of this suggests that the regime is carrying out these atrocities, as the opposition has claimed, although it is true that Syria has armed and backed extremist groups such as the Abu Nidal organisation and Hezbollah. Moreover, it is unlikely that the Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the opposition, has appropriated methods that are the hallmark of extremist, not secular, groups.

My fear is that a third element has crept into this conflict, possibly from Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, and that its agenda has nothing to do with the Arab Spring or the clamour for democracy. Even UN chief Ban Ki-Moon has suggested Al Qaida is behind the attacks.

An Islamist group calling itself Al Nusra (Victory) Front released a video in which it added the Damascus bombs to others it has already claimed. The spokesman highlighted the sectarian intentions of the attack, stating that Sunnis need "protection" from the ruling Alawites, who will be made to "pay the price".

Hidden agenda

And this apparently sinister development has not occurred in isolation. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states were keen to arm the Syrian revolution — not because they are lovers of democracy and reform, but because they would like to see Al Assad removed from power.

Under pressure from the Islamist establishment inside their own countries (which has its own sectarian agenda), the Saudis in particular are also mindful of the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri (a close friend of the al-Sauds who held joint Saudi-Lebanese citizenship), which led to a long-standing personal vendetta between the Saudis and Al Assad regime, which they held responsible.

The problem is that the Free Syrian Army, even well equipped, is unlikely to prevail, unaided, against Syria's mighty and highly professional armed forces, which in general remain loyal. Meanwhile, the advent of suicide bombers has given Al Assad a pretext for escalating the violence against his own citizens.

Given the course of events in Libya, the opposition were, understandably, gambling on foreign intervention, but none has been forthcoming: first, because long-term Syrian allies Russia and China stood by Al Assad and vetoed all relevant UN security council resolutions; second, because the US is reluctant to become embroiled in yet another costly — and dangerous — conflict. Any American intervention is likely only after the presidential elections in November, and would be linked to an attack on Iran, which remains the main focus in the region.

Any hopes that Kofi Annan's peace initiative might succeed have been blown out of the water by the apparent arrival of an extremist group, or groups, intent on escalating the sectarian aspect of the conflict, which neither the regime nor the opposition can hope to control.If the extremist groups manage to hasten the fall of the regime, their agenda is unlikely to end there. In post-Saddam Iraq, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi's Al Qaida offshoot fanned the flames of a Sunni-Shiite sectarian war that was only extinguished by the US army's ‘surge' and General David Petraeus's ‘Awakening' campaign, which overwhelmed the extremists temporarily. But in Syria there are no US forces, no Petraeus in sight.

Whoever governs post-revolutionary Syria is unlikely to rule over a united country, but rather sectarian or ethnic pockets, engaged in ongoing battles with each other. The historical precedent here is Lebanon, which was mired in civil war from 1975 for 16 years.

Nor is the prospect of sectarian conflict confined to Syria's borders. Regional polarisation might see a Sunni bloc, headed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia and incorporating any number of extremist groups, facing off a Shiite alliance led by Iran.

Here we have an even more chilling template — from 1514, the Sunnis of the Ottoman empire and the Shiite Safavid of Persia battled over the region for more than a century, fuelled by their religious differences.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Abdel Bari Atwan is editor-in-chief of the London-based newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi.