September 12, 2006

Syria - Attack on U.S. Embassy

AP Report: Three killed outside U.S. embassy in Syria

The American embassy compound is shown in the image to the left. It is the triangle in the center of the image. I served at this embassy from 1992 to 1995 as the air attaché.

The embassy is not one of the new hardened State Department facilities, but an older large house, two small buildings and a garage facility that have been converted to embassy use. It sits in a crowded urban area. The Chinese and Italian embassies are across the street.

There is a blast wall around the compound, as well as reinforced guardrails made of I-beams along the main street, the location of today's attack. Fortunately, the main bomb - a series of pipe bombs wrapped around propane tanks - did not detonate. Four perpetrators, described by Syrian security officials as "terrorists," were killed. The attackers were heard shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is great, a common Islamic phrase) during the incident.

The security situation is Syria and the capital city of Damascus overall is good. The security in this section of Damascus - Abu Rumanah - is very good. It is home to not only many embassies and diplomatic residences, it also is the home of the family of the late president Hafiz Al-Asad, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense liaison office (that's where the Syrians managed the foreign attaches). The embassies are protected not only by their own staffs, but by Syrian guards armed with automatic assault rifles as well.

That said, there are some risks. The American embassy has been the scene of protests, some even getting violent. During the Gulf War, despite the fact that Syria was part of the American-led coalition, Syrian protesters were able to scale the walls and do some looting. In the late 1990's, the embassy was attacked by an angry mob. There was property damage, but no casualties. In these attacks, you are always wary of the role of the Syrian government. A
re these attacks sanctioned to send a message to the American government?

Additionally, there was an attack on a United Nations facility in the Al-Mizzih section of the city, but this is believed to be staged to support Syrian claims that it was tough on terrorism.

Who is behind today's attacks? The most likely culprit is the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimin. This group has been active in Syria for decades. In 1982, Hafiz Al-Asad sent a Syrian army unit commanded by his brother Rif'at to put down a Brotherhood-inspired uprising in the northern city of Hamah. As many as 40,000 Syrians died in the fighting as Syrian artillery pounded the city into submission. This incident gave rise to the phrase, "Hamah rules" to describe Syria's method for handling dissent. While in Damascus, there were occasional gunbattles between security forces and the Brotherhood - in almost all cases, they had to be killed as they would not surrender.

Is there the possibility of Syrian complicity in this attack? Certainly relations between Syria and the United States are tense now. Syria has recently suffered diplomatic setbacks that they attribute to American policy, most notably the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon that forced Syria to withdraw its troops that had been there for 30 years. Associated with that is the withdrawal of the U.S. ambassador; the embassy functions under the leadership of a Charge d'Affaires. In the recent Israel-Hizballah clashes, Syria was accused of resupplying Hizballah - in fact Syria is the almost exclusive conduit for money, weapons and training for the terrorist group.

We will never know exactly who did this. To be sure, there will be an investigation with little or no American participation. Someone will be named as the perpetrator and the Syrians will claim the case solved and security tight.