Why Syria May Be the Real Victim of the Attack

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U.S. security personnel stand atop the U.S. embassy in Damascus, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2006.

Coming a day after the fifth anniversary of 9/11 and following another videotaped al-Qaeda vow to stage new attacks, Tuesday morning's foiled terrorist raid on the American embassy in Damascus is certainly cause for U.S. concern. A Syrian interrogation of one surviving attacker will seek to determine whether the incident was in fact the work of al-Qaeda or that of other individuals seeking to add to the carnage. Anti-American feelings are high throughout the Middle East, which in recent months has been gripped not only by the war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but the ferocious summer battles between Israel and Hizballah in Lebanon. With radicals blaming the U.S. in all three wars, it is prudent to assume that some of them may seize this opportunity to strike.

But the Syrian regime itself may have more to worry about in this particular attack than the U.S. That's because as it may have been intended as a riposte to Washington, the raid was a bold challenge to the rule of President Bashar Assad. The attack was carried out by as many as four Islamic militants shouting Muslim slogans in the heart of Damascus's diplomatic quarter not far from Assad's own residence — in short, one of the most heavily protected neighborhoods in Syria, if not the Middle East. The attackers failed to kill any American diplomats, and Syrian security guards apparently managed to slay three of the assailants. But that doesn't mean the terrorists were bumbling amateurs.

Bitterly at odds with Washington, Assad's regime has sometimes allowed militants to get too close to the U.S. embassy. During an anti-American demonstration in 2000, security forces looked the other way as a mob stormed the grounds and ransacked the American mission. Amid last winter's protests over Danish cartoons viewed as mocking the Prophet Mohammed, demonstrators burned the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus.

But allowing terrorists to hit a foreign embassy is a different matter altogether. For one thing, Assad's regime knows that could be a casus belli for a U.S. military strike on Syria. Relations have been tense for years. The U.S. recalled its ambassador in Damascus after Syria, despite its denials, was implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in February 2005. Mobs are one thing, but terrorism tells the Syrian people something that no dictator wishes to show: that the regime does not have as tight a grip on the country as it would like its citizens to believe.

What the attack shows, in fact, is that the Syrian regime's own long war with Islamic extremists is heating up again. In 1982, the regime of Assad's late father, Hafez, obliterated sections of the Syrian city of Hama, killing an estimated 20,000 people, to quell an uprising by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. The Assad dynasty's iron rule has kept the lid on discontent for most of the time since. But during the last few years, new attacks seem to herald the return of violent extremists. Just three months ago, in one of the Syrian capital's most prominent public squares, four gunmen were killed trying to attack the building housing Syrian state television. In 2004, the government blamed terrorists for setting off a car bomb in West Damascus near several ministries and embassies.

Another way to look at it is that the Syrian regime may be reaping what it sows. Among Arab leaders, Assad is alone in his outspoken support for Islamic militant groups like Hizballah in Lebanon, and the Palestinan factions, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. U.S. officials believe that the Assad regime has secretly aided the three-year-old Sunni insurgency in Iraq, providing passage for jihad volunteers and funds, and safe haven for insurgency leaders. At the start of the war in 2003, Arab jihadists who poured into Damascus en route to Baghdad were allowed to openly line up outside the Iraqi embassy just down the road from the American embassy.

Assad, whose regime is officially secular despite its close alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran, often casts himself as the champion of radical Islamic movements. Last month, in a speech openly ridiculing moderate Arab leaders, he hailed Hizballah's war in Lebanon as a stinging defeat for Israel that undercut American plans for the region. But it is beginning to look like at least some of the Islamists consider his regime the enemy, too.