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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Syria politics: Whose martyrs?


The Syrian government described the men who attacked the US embassy in Damascus on September 12th as "takfiri terrorists", indicating that they came from the same Sunni Muslim extremist camp as al-Qaida. Three of the four attackers were killed by embassy guards and Syrian security forces, and were prevented from gaining access to the compound. A car bomb prepared for the attack was defused outside the embassy gates, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency. One member of the Syrian security forces was said to have been killed.

9/11 link

The timing of the attack suggested a connection with the fifth anniversary of the September 11th events, although if this was intended as a reminder of al-Qaida's enduring potency the choice of target was curious. Syria has an ambiguous relationship with Sunni Islamist radicals. The Assad regime fought a bitter civil war with the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and in the immediate aftermath of September 11th the Damascus authorities co-operated with the US in tracking down suspected al-Qaida operatives. However, since 2003 Syria has been used as an important staging post and logistical base for Sunni militants fighting in Iraq, with little evidence of any serious effort by the Damascus authorities to intervene. Over the past two years there have been a number of incidents in Syria said by the authorities to have involved extreme Islamist militants attacking regime targets or foreign diplomatic missions. The latest attack appears to have been the most substantial of these.

Western critics of the Assad regime--notably including the US administration and the French government--have tended to regard such incidents with a measure of scepticism. In such a tightly marshalled security state as Syria there is room to doubt whether an underground terrorist group can operate entirely spontaneously. If al-Qaida were intent on hitting the US, a half-strength embassy in a country whose relations with Washington are close to breaking point is not the most obvious target. Alternatively, the spectre of al-Qaida-like terrorism in Syria could serve to illustrate the pitfalls of pushing the Assad regime too far, as well as to suggest that US interests might be better served by engaging with that regime, rather than attempting to undermine it.

Damascene knot

The incident occurred at a critical time for the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. The July-August war between Hizbullah and Israel was hailed by Mr Assad as a vindication for his robust approach to the Arab-Israeli question, which he contrasted with what he termed the defeatism of other Arab states, taken to mean Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Mr Assad has made clear that he will not be party to any effort to disarm Hizbullah, and he has directed harsh words towards the current Lebanese parliamentary majority, made up of the political inheritors of Rafiq al-Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister assassinated in February 2005. In the next few weeks the UN commission investigating the Hariri murder is scheduled to publish a fresh report, which could lead to the establishment of a tribunal at which senior Syrian officials would be summoned to appear. The establishment of such a tribunal needs the endorsement of the Lebanese parliament, however, which could be difficult to achieve if Syria's allies in Lebanon were to succeed in toppling the government of Fouad Siniora, the prime minister. Mr Siniora is standing firm, but has recently opened himself to attack by receiving the UK prime minister, Tony Blair, who has been pilloried as the "butcher of Beirut" for his perceived backing of Israel's operations in Lebanon.

Saudi angle

The recent events in Lebanon have resulted in a hardening of the position of Saudi Arabia towards Syria. Mr Assad's comments referring to certain Arab leaders as "half men" were taken as a direct insult to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who had been openly critical of Hizbullah. The Saudi government had earlier indicated that it was ready to work with Mr Assad, so as to wean Syria away from Iran. Now it appears that Saudi Arabia views itself in a direct contest with Syria (and, by extension, Iran) for influence in the region. Accordingly, King Abdullah is stepping up his support for the Siniora government, while making his presence felt in the Palestinian arena, with the 2002 Saudi peace plan serving as the basis for the agreement between Hamas and the president, Mahmoud Abbas. Syria also has leverage with the Palestinians, however, through hosting the Hamas politburo chief, Khaled Meshaal. A critical element to the Hamas-Abbas deal will be the release of a kidnapped Israeli soldier in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. This is unlikely to happen without a green light from Damascus.

In this highly charged political context, the US embassy attack provides a reminder of the hazards that abound in the region, while also, fortuitously or by design, showing that Syria is an important force, with both destructive and constructive potential.

Source: ViewsWire Middle East
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