October 1, 2008

Syria - Car bomb attack near Shi'a shrine

On September 27, a car bomb killed 17 people in a suburb of Damascus, Syria. The location of the attack is symbolic - the shrine of Sitt Zaynab, a site visited by thousands of Shi'a Muslims each month, including many Iranians on government-sponsored tours. Because the site is revered by the Shi'a, the perpetrators were almost certainly Sunni fundamentalists.

Sitt Zaynab, literally Lady Zaynab, refers to Zaynab bint 'Ali, the daughter of 'Ali and Fatimah (daughter of the prophet Muhammad) making her the granddaughter of the prophet, daughter of the first Shi'a imam and brother of Hasan and Husayn, the second and third imams. She is buried in the shrine that bears her name. It is one of the most beautiful buildings in Syria.

Since the site is a Shi'a holy place, the attack is an embarrassment for the Syrian government of Bashar al-Asad. Syria prides itself on its lack of violence - the internal security apparatus is large and effective. Despite this, there have been a number of incidents that call in to question the stability of the regime.

I was the air attaché at the American embassy in Damascus in the early to mid 1990s. At that time, the only violence was the occasional gunfight between remnants of the Sunni fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood (ikhwan al-muslimin) and Syrian security forces. When these events happened, I tried to get to the scene to see what was happening. In almost every instance, the fundamentalists would never surrender - the Syrians normally had to burn the building in which they had holed up.

There is serious bad blood between Sunni fundamentalists and the Asad regimes. In 1982, the fundamentalists had virtually taken over a section of downtown Hama, a city in north-central Syria. Hafiz al-Asad (Bashar's father) dispatched his brother Rif'at and special units of the Syrian army. The army fired artillery into the old city, leveling most of it and killing as many as 40,000 people. The Muslim Brotherhood was effectively destroyed as a major threat, but elements remain.

In September 2006, four men were killed in an attempted car-bombing attack on the American Embassy in the Abu Rumanah section of Damascus. The four were members of a pro-al-Qa'idah group.

In February of this year, Hizballah military commander 'Imad Mughniyah was killed in the normally peaceful residential Kafr Susah section of Damascus, virtually under the eyes of the Syrian internal security service. I believe it was the Israelis.

In August, Syrian brigadier Muhammad Sulayman was murdered in Tartus. Sulayman was allegedly involved in the supply of weapons to Hizballah. Again, there is suspicion that Israeli agents were responsible, but I believe it was likely an internal powerplay in the security forces. Sulayman did not rise to the level that would make him a target for the Israelis to mount an operation in Tartus.

The recent bombing at Sitt Zaynab underscores the internal problems in Syria despite the pervasive security services and domestic intelligence activities. While these problems appear to be worsening, Asad's intelligence officers are busy trying to ignite a civil war in Lebanon, probably to justify another Syrian military intervention.

Perhaps young Bashar should try to solve the problems in his own country before creating them in another.