September 23, 2009

Syria - confusing reports and regime stability

Syrian security forces in action

There are some confusing - and surprising - reports emanating from Syria that raise questions. According to an opposition web site, 30 senior members of the Iraqi jaysh al-mahdi (JAM) residing in Damascus were killed by unknown gunmen. The JAM is a Shi'a militia led by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Interestingly, there appears to be no coverage of the alleged incident in the Syrian press, Arabic or English. This is not surprising since all the media in Syria is government controlled and/or regulated. This is not the type of story that the regime of Bashar al-Asad would want made public.

Syria prides itself on excellent internal security. I lived there for almost three years, and they do have excellent internal security. There is little crime and the only public disturbances are either orchestrated by the regime or punished severely. As in Saudi Arabia, the low crime rate comes at a price - all you have to do is forgo freedom of speech, religion, assembly, etc.

Back to this incident. Why are members of the Iraqi Shi'a JAM living in Damascus? Syria is one of Iran's only allies, and its only Arab ally. The JAM is funded, equipped and trained by the Iranians. Senior members of the JAM seeking refuge in Syria is not surprising.

What is surprising is the murder of 30 of their number in Damascus. Given the relationship between Iran and Syria, it is highly unlikely that the Syrian security or intelligence services were involved. This immediately focuses suspicion in the illegal Muslim Brotherhood or affiliated fundamentalist Sunni groups who have mounted opposition to the secular Ba'th government for decades.

When I was in Damascus, there were incidents involving the Brotherhood. None were of this magnitude - there was just too much security and pervasive surveillance for this large of an operation. Normally the incidents involved a small group - eight to 10 men, who inalmost all cases had to be killed since they would not give up.

If the Brotherhood or some other anti-government group mounted this operation, it may indicate that the government is not the fearsome entity it once was. This also cannot help Iraqi-Syrian relations, already strained since Syria recently refused to hand over Iraqis suspected of funneling lethal aid to the remnants of al-Qa'idah in Iraq and the Saddamist Ba'th Party.

In any case, the coordinated murder of 30 people in Damascus raises a lot of questions, not the least of which is - who is in charge?