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  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
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Books on Syria

Update No: 059 - (29/09/08)

Terror in Damascus: Rejection of the Peace Effort or Blowback from Iraq? 
A car bomb exploded in Damascus on September 27, killing 17 people, near the Zeinab mausoleum, which is a popular pilgrimage destination for Shiites from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. The shrine is also located near an important Syrian internal security building. Nobody knows who did this and the actual target remains unclear, as the explosion took place on what is normally a busy Damascus thoroughfare; however, whether the target of the attack – for which nobody has claimed responsibility - happened to be the shrine or the security forces, and the security buildings, this is the bloodiest attack in Syria in several years and it has precipitated the country in a climate of tension, such as was last seen in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when then president Hafez al-Asad ordered the bombing of Hama, in central Syria, to bloodily crush down a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood. The brotherhood had carried out a series of bombing attacks against government officials, including an attempt against Hafez al-Asad himself. 

Apart from the episodes in the early eighties, acts of terrorism have been very rare. Syria has earned a reputation for being one of the most stable Arab countries; it is also one of the most secular ones. The anti-Muslim Brotherhood repression of Hafez al-Asad had given way to more religious tolerance, especially in the past few years, as the Baathist regime tried to absorb the religious tensions in the region by allowing more religious expression. 

The enormous influx of Iraqi refugees, Sunni and Shiite alike, in one direction and corresponding use of the shadowy ‘Syrian corridor’ by20internationally recruited ‘mujaheddin’ as a gateway to Iraq - to fight the Americans or the Shiites - has probably contributed to the sowing of some radical seeds in Syria itself. 

Moreover, the bombing is all the more suspicious as it comes after a series of mysterious murders that began with Imad Moughniyah, a Hezbollah leader, last February and general Mohammed Suleiman, an advisor to president Asad, last August. He was an important liasion with the IAEA, which is investigating Syria’s alleged nuclear plans, as well as being responsible for relations with Hezbollah. The murders, and now, the car bombing are signs of a growing tension in the country. 

There appears to be no shortage of suspects. Arab media has blamed the Israeli secret services, Mossad, for the attacks. An al-Jazeera Egyptian commentator suggested that Israel’s interest in instigating the bombing would have been t o weaken Syria’s image as a “valiant defender of Arab resistance against Israeli and Western plots”. 

The idea that Syria is being targeted by Islamic fundamentalists again may be more plausible. Syria’s clearly stated intentions to pursue peace with Israel, Syria’s pursuit of better relations with the West (and the United States potentially) - implying a stronger effort to control the flow of Jihadists to Iraq - or the possible aftershocks of the Fatah al-Islam campaign in Tripoli, could offer some clues into the attack and the nature of the emerging threat to the Baathist regime. 

Alternatively, the cause of the attack may have had very little concern with Syria and all to do with Iraq, in a possible case of exported ethnic rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites. 

Anti Shiite Sentiment
Indeed, Hezbollah, a Syrian ally, has have been gaining important political victories since last spring, fueling a rivalry with Sunni salafist groups, notably Fatah al-Islam, which was involved in the Lebanon in heavy fighting against the Lebanese army at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Tripoli. A bomb exploded killing 13 people in Tripoli, just as the new Lebanese president Michel Suleiman was about to visit Damascus. Therefore, the September 27 bombing may be the first shots in an emerging struggle between Sunni radical groups – with significant links to northern Lebanon – and the Baathist regime in Syria. This would also help explain the massing of thousands of Syrian troops near the Lebanese border. They=2 0are not there to re-enter Lebanon; they have a defensive purpose to monitor the flow of arms or jihadists seeking entry into Syria. 

The threat from Sunni radicals also stems from the fact that Syria reportedly arrested, says the Lebanese website Naharnet, the suspected leader of Fatah al-Islam, Shaker al-Abssi in early September, after he tried to cross the border from Lebanon. The area of the Zeinab mausoleum is known as an Iranian and Shiite enclave. Shiites, have been engaging in a bitter struggle against Sunnis in Iraq, where several shrines and pilgrimage sites have been the target of bombing attacks.

The renewal of salafist violence on a big scale could be a signal to the Baathist leadership that it too has become a target. Syria shared the radical Islamists as common enemies with Israel and the West; the different peace dynamic has now turned Syria into a target also. 

Salafist groups, on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks in the USA, had in fact launched a tirade against Shiites and Hezbollah in particular. Whilst entirely secular, the Syrian regime at the top is largely composed of Alawis, an ancient mountain people and although not particularly religious, a Shiite offshoot, their allies in government, the army etc; are Druses, Christians, Ismailis, even as the majority of Syrians are Sunnis. The ‘fundamentalist’ explanation is also advanced by the fact that the 2006 bombing against the US embassy in Damascus was claimed by a radical Sunni group calling itself Jund al-Islam. Like this September 27 bomb, an attack against an embassy would also have implied a breach of the security apparatus. 

Changing Foreign Policy 
Syria has made an important shift on foreign policy in pursuit of the respectability of the “international community”. Partly to please the Americans, Syria has appointed an ambassador to Iraq, implying greater efforts to control the flow of mujaheddin across the border President Asad has showed determination to pursue the Turkish mediated peace negotiations and has already indicated that Syria would also be ready for direct talks in 2009. Syria is very keen on achieving the return of the Golan from Israel in exchange for peace. 

Israel’s next prime minister, Tzipi Livni (who will be confirmed as prime minister once she has chosen her cabinet, a task for which she has 40 days), has reportedly hinted that her government would continue the indirect talks started under Ehud Olmert. 

Syria’s minister of foreign affairs, Walid Mouallem, warned that the talks would be postponed "at the request of the Israeli side", which Syria understands in view of Livni’s need to prepare her cabinet and clear internal hurdles first. 

President Bashar al-Asad has made it very clear that he intends to continue the peace talks, as indicated by his proposal to Israel for direct peace talks at a recent four-way summit in Damascus involving Syria, Turkey, France and Qatar. Doubtless, for any peace treaty between Syria and Israel to be signed, Damascus will have to end its support for groups that Israel considers to be ‘terrorists’ such as Hamas, the military leadership of which is in Damascus, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

In fact, another possibility that Lebanese analysts have suggested, is that the changing diplomatic dynamic, marked by Syria’s pursuit of better standing in the West, could be weakening president Asad0s control over conservative elements in the regime, and in the security apparatus, which may be leading to a ‘power struggle’, of which the bombing is a symptom. 

It is a reflection of middle-eastern chaos that so many possible explanations need to be rehearsed. It speaks of the moral bankruptcy of the instigators of the attack. By deciding not to claim responsibility, it means that they have killed a lot of innocent people without even seeking a justification of delivering any political or religious.

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