Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 October 2008
Issue No. 917
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Who is targeting Syria?

A bombing in Syria's capital joins a considerable list of unexplained terrorist attacks on Syrian soil, Bassel Oudat reports from Damascus

Syrian authorities take special pride in keeping things quiet in the country of 19 million. They do so by clamping down on dissidents and suspected terrorists. But the recent explosion, in which 17 died, must have shaken their sense of confidence.

The authorities are tight lipped about the whole thing. But it has been noted that Syria has been experiencing a series of unexplained events, such as the assassination of Hizbullah commander Imad Mughniyah in an area known for tight security and the murder of Mohamed Suleiman, a senior Syrian army officer. Recently, Mohamed El-Baradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said that a senior Syrian official connected with the Syrian nuclear programme had been assassinated.

The recent car bomb went off near a branch of the military intelligence services. Soon afterwards, Syrian television was on site, relaying live the aftermath of the explosion. This was the first time Syrian media covered a bombing in such a manner. While focussing on the civilian victims of the explosion, authorities seemed to be diverting attention from the security implications of the bombing.

Ten days have passed since then and no group has claimed responsibility for the bombing. This is remarkable, considering that the Islamists, whom the government blames for terrorist acts, usually claim any operation they stage. Syria's strain of Islamist militants consists mostly of small groups with no particular connection with Al-Qaeda. But it is believed that they engage in terror in the hope of joining Al-Qaeda, which would mean more money, training and notoriety. They have to claim their attacks in order to convince Al-Qaeda chiefs in Afghanistan or Pakistan that they should be taken seriously.

Some analysts claim that the bombing bears the fingerprints of Syria's intelligence services and that the ambiguity surrounding the operation is intentional. All Syrian opposition groups denounced the bombing, some even hinting that the regime itself had staged it to score domestic, regional or international points.

Syrian Interior Minister Bassam Abdul-Majid said that an anti-terror unit is investigating. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem reassured the public about Syrian security, but said that terror had spread generally since the US started its so-called "war on terror".

Israel denied any involvement in the incident. Israeli radio cited one minister as saying that Israel wouldn't perpetrate such an act while negotiating with Syria, in reference to ongoing indirect talks held under Turkish auspices. The minister speculated that Iran might have masterminded the bombing in order to sabotage any rapprochement between Syria and the West.

Yediot Aharonot said that the situation in Syria was enveloped in "uncertainty" and that President Bashar Al-Assad appears unable to keep things under control. The newspaper added that Iran instructed its own officials as well as Hizbullah leaders to refrain from visiting Syria for fear of assassination.

Meanwhile, a car bomb hit Tripoli 29 September. Five were killed and dozens wounded in the blast that targeted a Lebanese army bus. Syria was quick to denounce the bombing and blame "certain parties who wish to undermine Lebanon's peace and security".

A senior Syrian official described the bombing as a "cowardly and criminal act".

Earlier in the month, President Al-Assad voiced concern over "forces of extremism" that he said were backed by foreign forces in Tripoli, Lebanon. Many took his remarks as a veiled accusation of Saudi Arabia. Damascus and Riyadh have been estranged over Lebanon for sometime now.

Syrians say that Tripoli and parts of northern Lebanon have become a stronghold for Salafis, or Sunni extremists. Recently Al-Assad said that weapons and arms were being smuggled into Syria from Tripoli. The Lebanese fear that Al-Assad is looking for an excuse to interfere again in Lebanese affairs.

The Lebanese see a link between the bombing in Tripoli and Syria's claims that the Damascus bombing was planned abroad. The subsequent bombing in Tripoli seems to confirm their worst suspicions.

A week earlier, Lebanon said that Syria massed 10,000 troops from the Special Forces near the Lebanese northern borders. It has been noted that Syrian special units have dug trenches along the Lebanese borders and brought in heavy-calibre weapons. Lebanese sources cited a Syrian military official as saying that the deployment was for "reasons of domestic security" and intended to stop "smuggling operations" and to confront "threats" to Syrian security.

But who is threatening Syrian security? A senior Hamas official was killed in September 2004, with Israel declared as the most likely culprit. Some 15 soldiers were killed in July 2007 in what Syria said was an accident. Two months later, Syrian cleric Mahmoud Abul-Qaaqaa was shot dead. He was said to have been recruiting fighters to send to Iraq. In February 2008, Syrian armament specialist Mohamed Suleiman was shot dead by a sniper.

It is hard to tell who is behind these acts. In the early 1980s, a similar outbreak of violence was blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood and Israel. Following the occupation of Iraq, sporadic clashes and bombings occurred in Syria in mysterious circumstances. At the time, authorities said that Syria was suffering from the fallout of the US war in Iraq. Meanwhile, the Syrians have refrained from implicating Israel in the recent acts of violence. Is Syria under attack because it opened that channel of indirect talks?

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