Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Attack in Damascus


Syria is blaming an Al-Qaida off-shoot group for today's attempted attack on the American Embassy in Damascus. That group--Jund al-Sham--has reportedly carried out several strikes in Syria in recent years. Again, that raises the question of how closely Syrian security services have been monitoring the group's terror cells, and if there were any indications of a pending attack.

Secretary of State Rice has already praised Syrian security efforts. That diplomatic square has now been filled.

Unconfirmed reports indicate the gun battle raged for almost 30 minutes before Syrian security forces gained the upper hand. That would indicate a complex, determined assault by the terrorists, or a slow response by Syrian anti-terror forces. The linked MSNBC account tends to confirm that assessment. Note that the wounded Chinese diplomat was "standing on top of a parking garage" when he was struck in the face by shrapnel. If you're caught in a gun battle at close range, you generally don't stand up and watch. That paragraph in the MSNBC article suggests that the Chinese official was watching, and generally, an event would have to be on-going for at least a few minutes to attract an audience.

Another report indicates that a terrorist vehicle actually detonated at the embassy gates, part of a failed effort to breach the compound.


Officials are still trying to sort out the details of today's attack against the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. Press reports indicate that a small group of Islamic militants attempted to storm the embassy compound, using automatic rifles, grenades and at least one van rigged with explosives. Syrian security forces engaged the attackers outside the compound, killing three of the militants and wounding a fourth. One Syrian security officer also died in the attack. There were no U.S. casualties and the attackers never penetrated the embassy's outer walls.

On the surface, it looks like Syrian security forces were on their toes and defeated a potentially serious attack against the American embassy. But, things are never quite as they appear in Damascus, and it may take a while to figure out what exactly happened outside our embassy this morning. Certainly, Syria has every reason to maintain a strong security presence outside the U.S. embassy. Relations between Washington and Damascus have been strained by a number of issues, including Syrian support for Hizballah and insurgents in Iraq, and the alliance between Damascus and Iran. The Syrians are also nervous about the U.S. military presence in the region, and have long believed that they might wind up in our cross-hairs. From Bashir Assad's perspective, the last thing he needs is a successful attack on the American embassy-- under the nose of his security forces--giving the U.S. more ammunition to use against him.

Conversely, the successful Syrian reaction to today's attack puts Damascus in a more favorable position with the United States. At some level, Washington will be required to convey its thanks (an event that will be widely echoed in the Middle Eastern media), and Syria will probably press for some sort of quid-pro-quo--more pressure on Israel on the Golan Heights issue, less harsh rhetoric from Washington, etc. It will be interesting to see how the U.S. "returns" the Syrian favor.

But today's attack also raises other issues that will not be quickly resolved--if they ever are. Exactly how much did Syria's internal security and intelligence services know about the group that carried out the attack, and (if they knew anything in advance), why did they allow the terrorists to carry out their strike? For the record, Damascus allows a number of terrorist organizations to maintain offices in Damascus, including various Palestinian groups and Hizballah. Syria, of course, provides financial and military support for those organizations, using them as a proxy force against Israel. However, Syrian security officials closely monitor their activities, and it is doubtful that Damascus would give them a green light to attack a U.S. target on their soil. If the strike was attempted by one of those Palestinian groups or Hizballah elements, it would suggest that Syrian security isn't as tight as the Assad government would like, something that does not bode well for the regime's long-term survival.

On the other hand, if the attack was the work of Al-Qaida, that would also raises serious security concerns. While supporting jihadist elements outside its borders, the Assad regime does not tolerate such groups inside Syria, viewing them as a threat to its secular, Baathist government. Terrorists are allowed to transit through the country--as long as they're enroute to Lebanon, Israel, or Iraq. An Al-Qaida presence in Syria would represent a direct threat to the Syrian government, and represent something of a payback for Assad and his minions. Having sown the wind in Iraq (and elsewhere) the Syrians may be reaping the whirlwind at home, by supporting radical elements that despise an Assad-style government, almost as much as they hate the United States. It will be very interesting to see who Syria fingers for the attack, and how much--if anything--Damascus knew about the terrorist cell on their own soil. As with many events in Syria, there may be more here than meets the eye.

No comments: