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    Middle East
     Oct 1, 2008
Syria back on the terror map
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - A bomb attack on Monday in the Lebanese city of Tripoli and a deadly blast in Damascus over the weekend have been linked to Sunni Islamist extremists, according to analysts and news reports.

A remote-controlled car bomb devastated a bus packed with Lebanese soldiers in the northern city Tripoli on Monday, killing at least five and wounding 33, according to news reports. The blast occurred during morning rush hour and also destroyed several cars and shops.

Lebanese security officials told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that a bomb explosion in the northern city of Tripoli "was a terrorist attack aimed against security and stability in the country". This is the second attack on the Lebanese army

 

in recent weeks; last month, 14 died in a similar explosion in Tripoli.

And earlier, just before 8am on Saturday, a suicide bomber carrying 200 kilograms of explosives in a burgundy GMC Sedan (with either an Iraqi or Lebanese license plate), deviated from the main road leading to Damascus international airport. It drove into the Sidi Miqdad neighborhood, a relatively poor district just minutes from a holy shrine visited by Shi'ites who stream in on a daily basis from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq.

It is unclear what the target was, either the shrine, or a building used by the Syrian government. The result was a massive explosion: 17 civilians killed and anywhere between 14 to 40 people injured. The attack sent shockwaves throughout Damascus, terrifying the city's 5 million inhabitants, who had not witnessed such a brutal attack since the days of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

According to the Times of London, regional experts believe "that both attacks bear the hallmarks of terror groups linked to al-Qaeda intent on destabilizing the region". There has been no official claim of responsibility. Still, the car bombings appear to signal a new trend, and some analysts say they are directly linked to the changing situation in Iraq as United States-led operations may be pushing militants into neighboring countries.

"Security in Iraq is improving, but the militants are being driven across the border. There is a large number of militants that is coming into Syria and Lebanon, and our countries are paying the price for what is happening in Iraq," political analyst Kamel Wazne told the BBC .

Local news reports claim the attack on Damascus was revenge for Syria's long relationship with jihadi elements. Syria has offered shelter and served as a base for extremists since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, reports the Times. But over the past year, the report continues, Syria has been plagued with a number of assassinations and security breaches.

According to the Times, these issues have raised questions about Syria's " ... internal power struggles and external threats, as it attempts to play all sides off against each other in a volatile region ... It has hosted dangerous Sunni Islamist extremists despite being a secular Sunni country headed by Alawites, a Shi'ite sub-sect considered heretics by al-Qaeda and its hardline Sunni allies."

In official statements, Syria has denounced the Tripoli blast as a "terrorist and criminal act" and expressed "its solidarity with brotherly Lebanon in the face of parties who are undermining the country's security and stability".

Meanwhile, condemnations of the Damascus attack have been arriving from around the world. The first to speak out against the terrorism was Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, followed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The French leader, who visited Damascus this month, said it was "barbarian and blind" and expressed "solidarity with Syria in its fight against terrorism".

The Arab world followed suit - with the notable exception of Saudi Arabia, which 72 hours after the bombing remained silent, due to the strain in its diplomatic relations with Damascus. Even the United States came out with support for the Syrians, with US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack saying, "The United States condemns today's terrorist attack in Damascus."

McCormack added, "This attack is particularly abhorrent as it comes during the [Muslim] holy month of Ramadan. We extend our deepest sympathies to the victims and their families." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the bombing as "concerning" shortly before meeting with her Syrian counterpart Walid Mouallem.

Syria's 'Black Saturday'
Terrorist attacks of this kind have not been witnessed in Damascus since a bloody confrontation took place between the Syrian government and the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s. They included bombings of army headquarters and a military conscription building in al-Azbakiya. There were also several attempted assassinations of prominent figures affiliated with former president Hafez al-Assad, who also narrowly escaped assassination at the hands of fanatics in June 1980.

According to veteran British journalist Patrick Seale, "In Aleppo between 1979 and 1981, terrorists killed over 300 people." After the situation with the Brotherhood quieted , more violence erupted in December 1996, when a bomb went off at a bus station in Damascus, killing 13 and wounding 40.

In April 2004, armed men from Iraq attacked an abandoned United Nations building in the posh district of Mezzeh, killing a young teacher and a policeman. Shortly after, in July 2005, a group of terrorists was apprehended after a shooting caused panic among picnickers on Mount Qassiun. Earlier in the summer of 2005, Syria announced that it had arrested one man and killed another who had been planning an attack in Damascus on behalf of Jund al-Sham, believed to be directly linked to Syrian al-Qaeda member Abu Musaab al-Souri, a former member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

President Bashar Assad acknowledged in an interview with the New York Times in 2005 that authorities had apprehended a terrorist intending to carry out an attack at the Palace of Justice. In June 2006, terrorists tried to storm the headquarters of Syrian TV, in the heart of the Syrian capital, and in September 2006, they tried and failed to launch an attack on the US Embassy in Syria. Imad Yarkas, for example, was sentenced by a Spanish court for providing logistic support to al-Qaeda and conspiracy to commit murder on September 11, 2001.

Yarkas, a Syrian, was accused by a Spanish court of having organized a meeting in Tarragona, Spain, in July 2001, attended by Mohammad Atta, who crashed one of the airplanes into New York's Twin Towers. It was also believed that Yarkas helped set September 11 as the date for the attack. Prosecutors wanted to jail him for 25 years for each of the 2,973 victims who died, meaning, a symbolic 74,325 years behind bars. Instead, he received 15 years for conspiracy and 12 years for leading a terrorist organization, a total of 27 years.

Since September 11 the names of several Syrians have appeared in the hunt for al-Qaeda in Europe and the Middle East. Among the Syrians accused are Yarkas, the businessman Ma'mun al-Darkazanli and the deadly Abu Musaab al-Souri, believed to be the man behind the March 11, 2004, attacks in Madrid and possibly involved in the brutal July 7 attacks in London. All of these terrorists still have ties and connections in Syria and might be linked to what happened on September 27. More recently, a car bomb went off in February, killing top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, and in August, a top Syrian general was assassinated in the coastal city of Tartus.

The fanatic who carried out the attack could have either come into Syria from the wilderness of Iraq, or from the battlegrounds in Tripoli (Lebanon) where fundamentalists have been engaged in terrorism since May 2007. The Syrians feared that terrorists would cross the border through Lebanon and that is why they recently mobilized troops on Syria's eastern border with Lebanon. Or, he could have been born in Syria and indoctrinated and recruited by al-Qaeda, or sister groups like Jund al-Sham, which was responsible for several of the attacks that took place between 2003-2007.

Syria has been saying that since the war on Iraq started in 2003, fanatic military Islam was on the rise, and would eventually reach Syria because of the chaos in Baghdad. Opponents of Syria, however, led by the US, insisted on not believing the Syrians. They claimed that Damascus was magnifying the Islamic threat to show Washington that they had a common enemy in al-Qaeda and similar Islamic groups. That perhaps explains why a certain sense of guilt prevailed in the US - and possibly in Saudi Arabia - when terror struck Damascus on September 27. Both parties may have felt somehow responsible for what happened, because they refused to believe the loud outcries and red alerts emanating from Syria.

When terrorists struck in Amman, blowing up hotels and killing the Syrian film director Mustapha al-Akkad in November 2005, the Syrian government was among the first to condemn the attack and raise a security alert in Damascus, fearing that Syria was next on the terrorists' hit list. The Syrian people shivered, but forced themselves to believe that although this was happening in neighboring Amman, Beirut, and Baghdad, it would somehow - through some miracle - not reach Damascus. The Syrians seemed to be telling themselves, "Terror strikes in the regional neighborhood, or it strikes in far away countries like Pakistan or the United States. But not over here; never in safe and peaceful Damascus."

The folly of such wishful thinking has been realized now that September 27 has put Damascus on the terror map. The Syrians are calling what happened "Black Saturday" and one commentator wrote, "Sidi Miqdad [the neighborhood where the suicide bomber struck] is our World Trade Center. The Americans have 9-11. We now have 27-11 and it should be a wake-up call to everybody that the wolf is at the door and Syria should spare no effort to combat the terrorists coming from within, or from Iraq and Lebanon."

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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