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Syria's own 'war on terror'

Aftermath of 27 September bombing
The September bomb revealed vulnerability in the Syrian regime, say analysts

By Martin Asser
BBC News, Damascus

Compared with its neighbours and many other countries in the Middle East in recent years, Syria is a place where the modern scourge of terrorism has scarcely been felt.

It has been spared the prolonged mayhem of Iraq, the slow drumbeat of political assassinations in Lebanon, the periods of looming fear in Israel.

Admirers put this success down to iron-fisted rule by the Baathist government along with its shrewd political stances on issues that have tended to be the focus of terrorist action.

Syria's enemies, on the other hand, maintained the reason was that Damascus was in fact an exporter of terrorism, sponsoring Palestinian militant groups who bomb Israeli cities, allegedly masterminding the Lebanon attacks and helping the anti-US insurgency in Iraq.

The Bush administration has gone as far as associating Syria with its global "axis of evil", and the state department has long included Damascus in its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

So the car bombing on 27 September, which killed 17 people at a major junction in southern Damascus, has necessitated a readjustment of thinking on all sides.

Political arguments

On 7 November, Syrian TV broadcast statements by 11 self-confessed members of the Fatah al-Islam extremist group saying they had been involved in the plot.

Unfortunately the clumsily staged broadcast, against the backdrop of prison bars, provided little that could be thought of as conclusive.

We have arrested 1,000s of people wanting to go to Iraq; we have contributed greatly to stability there
Faisal Miqdad, Syrian deputy Foreign Minister
The trouble is Syria is such a secretive place, especially on the subject of security, and Fatah al-Islam such a shadowy group, that the truth of something like the Kazzaz bombing may never come out fully.

It therefore becomes an occasion for partisan voices to analyse in a way that rehearses and reinforces their own political viewpoints.

Syria's supporters say it showed what the government had been saying for some time, that it faced the same threat of Islamist militancy as other countries around the world.

That means Damascus, currently on a mission to re-engage with Western powers, needs extra co-operation and help from its erstwhile critics.

More critical voices, however, suggested the bombing was a result of power struggles between members of the Syrian ruling elite - or possibly a blowback effect from the same militant groups Damascus had itself fostered.

These voices include anti-Syrian elements in Lebanon who have reacted with alarm at Syria's deployment of 10,000 troops along the shared border in recent weeks - ostensibly to prevent infiltration of terrorists and smugglers.

For them, Syria has yet to be brought to justice for the 2005 bombing that killed former PM Rafiq Hariri, although Damascus has denied accusations of involvement and the interim findings of a UN-backed investigation which put its intelligence services and allies in Lebanon in the frame.

Instability

Amidst the spin, Karim Maqdisi, assistant professor of international relations at the American University in Beirut, offers what he says is the most plausible non-partisan analysis of the current situation.

Syrian demonstrations after US raid
The US raid incident caused anger in Syrian streets and corridors of power
"This is an attempt to destabilise the Syrian regime and to expose it for being weaker than it is," he said.

Dr Maqdisi says it is impossible to know for certain who would want to make such an attempt but it could stem from a number of outside sources or from groups within Syria itself.

"It's one of these issues where while on the one hand some are trying to encourage a peace process with Syria - there are also those that want to isolate Syria, make it commit an own goal, and this is part of it," he added.

And he notes the two conflicting viewpoints could coexist within the same government or organisation - whether it be another Arab state, or Israel or the United States.

The fog of terrorism in Syria has been further thickened by an event which under Dr Maqdisi's thesis could constitute another effort in the same process, the attack on Syrian soil on 28 October by US troops operating from Iraq.

Without fully confirming the raid publically, off-the-record US briefings claimed it had killed a senior al-Qaeda-linked figure responsible for terrorism in Iraq.

Damascus branded the Abu Kamal incident an instance of "American terrorism" that killed eight civilians, a charge repeated by Syrian deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Miqdad when I went to see him.

"It is in the benefit of both Syria and Iraq to prevent illegal crossing of the border. We have arrested hundreds if not 1,000s of people wanting to go to Iraq; we have contributed greatly to stability there," he said.

The arguments will go on, and since Syria is now seen as standing at a policy crossroads it seems likely that sudden violent interventions to influence its progress will continue as well.

See previous articles in Martin Asser's series from Damascus



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