July 25, 2011

Analysis of the Syrian Train Sabotage Attack

On July 24, unknown persons caused the derailment of a passenger train outside the restless city of Homs, about 100 miles north of Damascus. The city has been the venue for weeks of anti-government demonstrations and ruthless regime repression of those demonstrations. Sixteen passengers were injured in the incident; the train's engineer was killed. Unusually, the Syrian government did not try to portray this as an accident, going out of its way to show reporters bullet holes in the engineer's cabin.

Additional video (narration in Arabic)

The exact location of the derailing is 34º 45' 39"N 36º 38' 02"E, just outside the Ring Road around Homs. A search of satellite imagery and available news footage enabled me to find the location. It is close to the village of Quzhal, quite a distance from the reported location of al-Sawda. This is not surprising - the Syrians are notorious for not providing accurate locational data.

The spot selected for the train derailment smacks of amateur actors. A few rail sections appear to have been removed on the south side of a bridge over a small river. In the absence of using explosives to destroy the bridge, the perpetrators should have removed track sections on the bridge itself or on the north side of the bridge to cause damage to the bridge, possibly rendering it unsafe for future traffic. Tracks are easy to replace; bridges are not.

That said, the choice of a passenger train carrying almost 500 people is hardly a viable target for a groups of anti-government protesters - but who else would have done it? It would be impossible to know if the passengers on the train were regime supporters; more likely, many were not happy with the Ba'th regime of President Bashar al-Asad. Had this been a military train, that might be an acceptable target.

Given the timing of the derailing, this appears to have been Train 230, the night train from Aleppo to Damascus, hardly a train that would be used for military movements. According to the governor of Homs governorate, Ghasan 'Abd al-'Al, the train derailed between 1:00am and 3:00am. This coincides with the schedule below, showing Train 230 departing Aleppo shortly after midnight and scheduled to stop in Homs at 3:30am.

The governor's remarks are confusing, though. He said (translated), "The saboteurs learned the schedule of the train which passed Aleppo at 1:00 a.m. They dismantled the rails during the two hours before the train was due to arrive at Damascus at 3:00 am." This may be an error in translation; I have not been able to get the audio of the remarks in Arabic to allow me to determine exactly what he said.

First, "learning" the train schedule is not rocket science. Even in tightly-controlled Syria, the government has to tell people when the trains operate. Second, the train was scheduled to depart its origin in Aleppo earlier than the 1:00am time cited by 'Abd al-'Al, and the train was not due to reach Damascus until well after 6:00am.

The bottom line

This attack was exactly the wrong thing to do. An unprovoked attack on a passenger train that has nothing to do with the Ba'th regime other than the fact that it is part of a state-owned enterprise, is just wrong. it undermines the legitimacy and credibility of the anti-government demonstrators who up until this point have been nonviolent. The violence has been perpetrated by regime forces seeking to repress the demonstrations.

This violent attack plays right in to the hands of the regime. It now has a violent act that can be cited to justify further repression of the demonstrations. If there was a chapter on how not to protest successfully in a dictatorship, this would be among the major topics.

The leaders of the demonstrators need to denounce this senseless act.