This morning a car bomb exploded in Mahlak street, Damascus, at a junction with the airport road and not far from Sitt Zainab. Seventeen are dead and 14 injured. That sounds like a powerful bomb, killing more than it maims.
In 1997 I found myself walking over what appeared to be blood and oil stains in the Victoria area of the city. There were soldiers gathering shards of glass and hosing the street down. Bystanders were subdued, not meeting your eye. I asked someone what had happened and he mumbled something about a gas leak. In fact a bus had been blown up minutes after leaving the old station at Baramkeh, and nine people had been killed. Afterwards there were whispers about Lebanese Maronites (the Lebanese Sunnis still supported Syria) being behind it, and of course Israel was a suspect. But the whole thing was kept as quiet as possible. The deal the regime has made with the people is: allow us corruption and thuggishness if we give you in return a foreign policy which doesn’t shame you and, most fundamentally, a guarantee of security. Exploding buses are a message from whoever sends them to the Syrian people, and the literal translation of the message is: the regime can’t protect you.
In the early eighties the extremist wing of the Muslim Brothers, backed by Ba’athist Iraq, the imperial client in Jordan, and others, fought anyone they considered to be connected to the regime – by family or politics or sect – in the streets. The regime gave as good as it got, or worse, and the Brothers were defeated. In recent years there have been political assassinations and shoot-outs between Wahhabi-nihilists and the security forces, but today’s horror is the first random act of violence targetting civilians in Syria since 1997. Given its position between Palestine, Lebanon, Turkish Kurdistan and Iraq, and given its delicate ethnic and sectarian composition, Syria has indeed remained reasonably secure and stable.
On July 17th 1981, Israel murdered 300 civilians by bombing residential tower blocks in Beirut which may or may not have housed PLO offices. On March 8th 1985, the CIA failed to kill Ayatullah Fadlallah with a car bomb in Beirut, but succeeded in killing 80 of his neighbours. So today’s attack could well have been inspired by the US or Israel – Imad Mughniyeh was killed by a car bomb, and if there was a specific target this morning we will never hear of him if he hasn’t been killed. So close to Sitt Zainab – the shrine of Hussein’s sister venerated by the Shia, and the home of tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees – the target could have been a Sadrist leader, an Iranian official, a Hizbullah man. This means the power with the motive could be the Hakim group, or the CIA, or March 14-linked Lebanese Salafis, or al-Qa’ida in Mesopotamia. Continue the list for your own amusement.
I certainly hope it was Israel, because then there will be some sort of political economy to the violence to come (though 17 dead is pretty damn expensive). I fear that the Salafi connection is more likely, and I dread this. The al-Watan correspondent in Damascus says the car exploded on the way to its target. What if the shrine itself is hit? It would be a catastrophe. If there is a concerted attempt to bring Iraq’s sectarian war to Syria, the near future is going to be very bloody. Allah yastoor.
It could of course be some kind of grand Saudi-Israeli-Salafi plot. Or anything else. This is all speculation – but let’s have a good speculate, friends, because we’re not going to get any closer to the truth than we are now.
And there's one positive note: Syrian TV reported the explosion almost immediately. This is a change from the usual security silence.
Syria was silent on the Israeli attack of September 6th 2007, long enough to allow Israel and America to build their narrative of events. Now early results of an International Atomic Energy Agency investigation into the site bombed say that there is no sign of the North Korean-built plutonium-producing reactor the Americans had imagined.
Why then, if Syria had nothing to hide, did it bulldoze the area? Because the Syrian regime saw the rubble as a visible humiliation which it wished to erase. And because the Syrian regime doesn’t possess even the concept of public relations.
The nuclear explanation was always absurd: if there were any real intelligence that Syria had a nuclear weapons programme you can bet that America and Israel would be making a lot more noise than they are. If Syria did have ambitions to score a strategic balance with nuclear-armed Israel – which wouldn’t be wrong by conventional moral standards – it would make much more sense to have Iran, with its huge spaces and high capabilities, make the bombs. But the Syrians aren’t stupid. They can’t afford nuclear weapons politically or financially. Isn’t Hizbullah much more effective a deterrent anyway?
It seems most likely that the raid on Syria had something to do with Israeli preparations for Iran (the Guardian says this week that the US refused to back Israeli war plans for Iran) – to send a message certainly, and to test Russian warning systems which may be stationed in both Syria and Iran.
Incidentally, Syria's contact with the IAEA, Muhammad Suleiman, was mysteriously assassinated on the beach last month.
We’ll see what tomorrow brings. Khair, insha’allah.