Long list of enemies in Syria blast
One of the problems with countries like Syria – secretive and authoritarian – is that whenever a bomb goes off or someone is assassinated, the list of possible suspects is extensive.
One can draw up a long list of enemies who could have plotted and carried out Saturday’s rare car bomb attack on a major road near a Syrian state security complex and an intersection leading to a famous Shi’ite Muslim shrine. The blast, which killed 17 people including a brigadier general and his son, poses another test to Syria’s reputation for keeping a tight grip on dissent and maintaining stability in a troubled area.
High on any list of possible perpetrators are Sunni Salafi jihadis active in Syria now, and who for years were able to cross through the Syrian borders into Iraq to fight U.S. troops. This stopped recently when Damascus tightened its borders following pressure from Iraq and the United States and opted for a policy of detente and moderation starting with indirect peace talks with Israel through Turkish mediation and a diplomatic drive to end its international isolation.
The jihadis, angry at Syria cutting off their routes, relaunching peace talks with the Jewish state and detaining their militants, could have turned their guns against Damascus. And this could have involved a mix of personnel — foreign expertise helping local Islamists.
Another motive for the latest attack could be Sunni-Alawite tensions in Lebanon. Sunni militant groups based in northern Lebanon have been fighting a sectarian war with Lebanon’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam which has close links to Syria, whose ruling elite has been dominated by minority Alawites for over four decades.
Syria said an Islamist suicide bomber was responsible for the attack and that the vehicle had entered Syria from a neighbouring Arab country on Sept 26. It did not name the country but Syria’s Arab neighbours are Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.
Assad, whose country has dominated Lebanon for three decades and was forced to withdraw its troops after the assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, warned this month of a danger from what he called foreign-backed Sunni extremists in the predominantly Sunni city of Tripoli. He called for a solution to “the rising threat” of Islamist militants in the city.
The bombing was reminiscent to attacks that were carried out in the past by Syria’s Islamist opposition led by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood which has been locked in a bloody feud with the secular government since the 1980s when late President Hafez al-Assad launched a major crackdown against their followers and supporters in the northern city of Hama.
That left thousands of Muslim Brotherhood activists dead — some estimates are as high as 20,000 – languishing in prisons or forced underground.
A riot by Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists at a military prison near Damascus in July suggests the bitter fight between the authorities and the Brotherhood is far from over. There were conflicting accounts of the incident but human rights groups said Syrian security forces killed dozens of prisoners during the riot at Sidnaya prison.
A Syrian official said the disturbances began when Islamist inmates took prison officers hostages and set conditions for their release. Special anti-riot units were brought in from Damascus to end the riot which was quashed violently, according to various accounts.
Syria, which has been ruled by the secular Baath Party since 1963, has sometimes used Islamist groups as proxies to pursue its interests in neighbouring countries, even though it showed no mercy domestically to the 1982 uprising at Hama by the Muslim Brotherhood.
It will likely pursue the hard line policy against militants but Saturday’s attack, which follows the assassination of the military commander of Lebanon’s Hezbollah in Damascus and a senior military aide to President Assad in northern Syria earlier this year, has dented Syria’s watertight security image.
The killing of Imad Moughniyah, in particular, who was on Washington’s most wanted list for two decades for hijackings and suicide bombings against U.S. Western and Israeli targets worldwide, raised serious questions about whether the Assad regime was master in its own house.
More generally, the recent attacks suggest that Syria itself may become victim to its government’s dabbling in jihadism, like so many other sorcerers’ apprentices across the region who tried to harness Islamist militancy for their own ends only for it to blow back on them.