DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — The latest suicide bombings in the Syrian capital showed an increasing ruthlessness: The attackers struck during rush hour, setting off one blast to draw a crowd before unleashing a much bigger one, killing 55 people and leaving the street strewn with rubble and mangled bodies.
For many, the al-Qaida-style tactics recall those once familiar in the country's eastern neighbor, Iraq, raising fears that Syria's conflict is drifting further away from the Arab Spring calls for political change and closer to a bloody insurgency.
"Syria is slowly but surely turning into another Iraq," said Bilal Y. Saab, a Syria expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
The presence of al-Qaida militants and other extremists adds a wild card element to the Syria conflict that could further hamper international efforts to end it. While world powers and U.N. observers in Syria can pressure the government and the opposition to stick to special envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan, they have no means of influencing shadowy Islamic militants who often don't claim their own attacks.
Western officials say there is little doubt that al-Qaida-affiliated extremists have made inroads in Syria since the popular uprising against President Bashar Assad began 14 months ago. But much remains unclear about their numbers, influence and activities inside Syria.
"We do have intelligence that indicates that there is an al-Qaida presence in Syria, but frankly we don't have very good intelligence as to just exactly what their activities are," U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters in Washington on Thursday.
Panetta said he didn't know whether al-Qaida was connected to the latest bombings in Damascus.
Amateur videos posted online provide occasional glimpses of extremist activity.
One video posted this week shows a suicide attack that reportedly took place on May 2 in the northern town of Idlib. In the footage, a white van speeds toward an army checkpoint and erupts into a huge ball of flame as it nears the soldiers, sending their bodies flying.
In February, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri called on Muslims in neighboring countries to join the uprising, saying Syria's rebels must not rely on the West.
Syria's uprising started in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests inspired by successful revolts elsewhere calling for political reform. The Syrian government responded with a brutal crackdown, prompting many in the opposition to take up arms to defend themselves and attack government troops.
The U.N. said weeks ago that more than 9,000 people have been killed. Hundreds more have died since.
Thursday's twin blasts in Damascus were the fifth in a string of major attacks in Syrian cities that have clouded the picture of a fight between the opposition and the regime. It was the deadliest yet, in part because it happened on a key thoroughfare during rush hour, while previous bombings were on weekends.
No one has claimed responsibility for the blasts, although a shadowy militant group calling itself the Al-Nusra Front has claimed past attacks through statements posted on militant websites. Little is known about the group, although Western intelligence officials say it could be a front for al-Qaida.