AMMAN, Jordan – A car bomb ripped through Syria’s largest city of Aleppo on Sunday, killing at least 17 people and wounding 40 in one of the main battlegrounds of the country’s civil war, state-run media said.
Al-Qaida-style bombings have become increasingly common in Syria, and Western officials say there is little doubt that Islamist extremists, some associated with the terror network, have made inroads in the country as instability has spread. But the main fighting force looking to oust President Bashar Assad is the Free Syrian Army, a group made up largely of defected Syrian soldiers.
Sunday’s blast came hours after a Jordanian militant leader linked to al-Qaida warned that his extremist group will launch “deadly attacks” to help the rebels in Syria topple Assad.
In a speech delivered to a crowd of nearly 200 followers protesting outside the prime minister’s office in Amman, Mohammad al-Shalabi, better known as Abu Sayyaf, told Assad that “our fighters are coming to get you.”
The warning fueled concern that Syria’s civil war is providing a new forum for foreign jihadists, who fought alongside Iraqi Sunni insurgents after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and are sending fighters to help the Taliban in Afghanistan.
A Jordan-based Western diplomat who monitors Syria said the number of foreign fighters is about 100 but that figure is gradually rising. He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying identifying him further could risk his ability to gather information on Syria.
“From this podium, we declare jihad (holy war) against the wicked Assad, who is shedding the blood of our Sunni Muslim brothers in Syria,” Abu Sayyaf yelled through a loudspeaker.
Abu Sayyaf is the head of Jordan’s Salafi Jihadi group, which was blamed for the 2002 assassination of U.S. aid worker Laurence Foley outside his Amman home. Abu Sayyaf was convicted in 2004 of plotting attacks on Jordanian air bases hosting American trainers but served his term and was released last year.
The fight for Aleppo, a city of 3 million that was once a bastion of support for President Bashar Assad, is critical for both the regime and the opposition. Its fall would give the opposition a major strategic victory with a stronghold in the north near the Turkish border. A rebel defeat would, at the very least, buy Assad more time.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
Fighting also raged elsewhere in Syria, with at least 58 people reported killed and scores wounded, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – a Britain-based monitoring group. That figure excluded the car bomb but included eight killed in an air raid earlier in Aleppo that flattened a residential building, the group said.
The Syrian conflict has its roots in mostly peaceful street protests that started in March last year. Since then, it has expanded into a civil war, with 23,000 people killed so far, according to human rights activists.
As the battle grinds on, observers have noticed increasingly sectarian overtones to some of the violence, suggesting any power vacuum will usher in a bloodbath pitting Syria’s majority Sunni population against the Assad family’s minority Alawite sect, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.