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
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
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
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
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
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.