Syrian state media say Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi escaped unharmed from an assassination attempt Monday in Damascus. The attack came as violence, especially sectarian-motivated, appeared on the rise across the region.
A bomb exploded as Halqi's convoy passed through the Mazzeh district, a normally well-fortified neighborhood, according to Syrian state media. An interview of an unscathed Halqi was shown on state television later in the day. In his remarks, said to be made after the attempted assassination, he made no mention of the attack.
The strike follows other high-profile bombings in the capital, including at the interior ministry in December. Initial reports from state media said the interior minister was not hurt in that attack, reports that later proved untrue.
Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, says Monday's bombing is not likely to change the equation overall despite the bomb hitting at the heart of the Syrian capital.
“The situation seems open to a long and unfortunately very bloody, devastating stalemate between the regime - which is not about to be defeated, but cannot win also - and the rebel groups which are very disunited, but at the same time have taken large control of parts of the country," said Salem. "They are not going to be defeated either.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Monday's bombing.
Previous such attacks have been linked to the jihadist al-Nusra Front, part of the armed, mainly Sunni opposition seeking to oust the government of President Bashar al-Assad, whose inner circle is dominated by members of the Shi'ite offshoot Alawite sect.
The increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict, which began two years ago as peaceful anti-government protests, was alluded to by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of neighboring Iraq on Saturday.
In a televised address, Maliki warned of spreading sectarianism, referring to it as an “evil” moving from one country to another. He added there is a “wind behind it, and money and plans,” though he did not indicate who might be fomenting the strife.
Sectarian violence continued Monday across Iraq, with at least five deadly bombings in predominantly Shi'ite areas. The country has been rocked by numerous bombings in recent weeks.
The Carnegie Center's Salem said religion-based violence is a problem for the whole region, but there are elements specific to Iraq for which Maliki is responsible.
"Instead of consolidating national unity and reinforcing it, the Maliki government and Maliki himself moved against some leading Sunni politicians and immediately the level of sectarian tensions escalated,” he added.
But Salem argues that the violence is linked, adding that Iraq's Sunni opposition is increasingly mobilized by the fact that Sunnis in Syria are also fighting a non-Sunni leader.
Salem also points to the geographic ties between eastern Syria and western Iraq, and in a more deadly link, to the transnational nature of such extremist Sunni groups as al-Qaida.