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No Consensus on Bombing

There have been conflicting reports from Syria this week about who might have been behind the Damascus car-bombing on September 27 that left at least 17 people dead.

Since the explosion, the local media, the opposition and some political analysts have offered different theories for the deadliest attack on Syrian soil in more than two decades.

The media suggest it was an act of terror committed by foreign Islamic extremists; some in the opposition believe it may have been a consequence of sectarian tensions; while analysts contacted by IWPR suspect it might be linked to a bloody feud between rival branches of the Syrian security services.

According to the state-run news agency SANA, a car bomb loaded with 200 kilogrammes of explosives exploded at 8.45 am on Saturday, September 27, on an airport road south of the capital, near an intersection that leads to a well known Shia shrine. Initial reports said 17 civilians were killed and 14 injured.

According to the pro-government website all-4syria, the explosion occurred close to the Palestine Security Service, a military branch of the country’s many security agencies.

Nobody has so far claimed responsibility for the explosion.

Syria has long been considered the safest country in the region – not least because of the tight grip of the security services – but since the beginning of the year there have been two high profile assassinations.

In February, a car bomb went off in Damascus, killing the military commander of Hezbollah, Emad Mughniyeh. And in August, a sniper in the seaside city of Tartus killed Muhammad Suleiman, a high-ranking military figure who is said to have been involved in the Syrian nuclear programme and was allegedly acting as a liaison officer with Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon.

After the latest Damascus bombing, the Syrian authorities said it was too early say who was behind the outrage, but described it as an “act of terrorism”.

According to the Syrian news agency SANA, the car that carried the bomb had entered Syria from a neighbouring Arab country, without naming the country. The agency said the explosion was the work of a suicide bomber, who had links with a group of Takfiris –

extremist Muslims (normally a reference to al-Qaeda).

On September 30, an Islamic website purportedly published an al-Qaeda statement denying that it was responsible for the attack. It suggested that the Syrian regime was describing the incident as a terrorist attack to serve its own interests.

Pro-government media, however, are insisting that extremists are to blame for the explosion, and have speculated that Saudi Arabia might have had a role in what happened.

Several news organisations reported on a story from the British newspaper The Observer claiming the explosion was the work of a Lebanese Sunni extremist group, with the Syrian media pointing out alleged links between it and the Saudis.

The pro-government newspaper al-Watan said on September 28 that Saudi Arabia was the only country which didn’t condemn the explosion.

Syria appears to have been concerned about recent violence between Sunnis and minority Alawites in the port of Tripoli, in the north of Lebanon. The Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has warned that northern Lebanon had become "a base for extremism and constitutes a danger for Syria".

Prior to the Damascus bombing, Syria dispatched 10,000 soldiers to its northern border with Lebanon, justifying the reinforcement as a necessary internal security measure. In Lebanon, the troop movement raised concerns about possible incursions of Syrian troops into Lebanon.

And this week, Sunni politicians in Lebanon lashed out at Syria for allegedly fanning violence there, after a bus bombing in Tripoli in which seven Lebanese were killed, including four soldiers.

A second theory for the Damascus bombing has come from the banned opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood, who believe that the explosion was likely to have been the result of sectarian tensions in the country. A spokesman for the group blamed the “repressive atmosphere in Syria” for creating an environment susceptible to fundamentalism. He suggested the bombing might have been provoked by the recent influx into the country of Shia from Iraq and Iran.

Nonetheless, ordinary Syrians appear unconvinced by suggestions that extremists were behind the incident. A journalist based in Damascus, who conducted several interviews after the attack, said, "People don’t seem to believe that a terrorist group is operating in Syria. The strong security hand makes [them] feel that nothing could happen that’s out of their control.”

Some political analysts IWPR spoke to have suggested that the bombing was a consequence of a power struggle between rival Syrian security services.

One political writer in Damascus argued that the theory will be given even more credence if there’s confirmation of rumours that one of the bomb victims was Syrian general Abdul Kareem Abbas, who was being investigated by the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission in connection with the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri. The authorities have so far insisted that only civilians were killed.

"In case it is proved that Abbas was killed in the explosion, it will blow all the speculation about extremist groups and show that it is the result of an internal conflict," said the writer.

Another political writer points out that the proximity of the explosion to a major security building also gives weight to claims that it was linked to a domestic power struggle.

"To have a car bomb go off in front of the biggest security building raises questions about the real target of the explosion. It seems as if it was a message for certain security agencies,” he said.

Reports of serious tensions between Syria’s various security agencies have been circulating for some time. Over the past few months, the speculation appears to have grown. The killings of Mughniyeh and Suleiman, and the reported house arrest in April of military intelligence chief Assef Shawkat are all said to be linked to this internal conflict, which some have suggested is being fuelled by disagreement over Syria’s foreign policy.

While the speculation continues, residents of the capital did not appear to be unduly worried by the bombing, as they celebrated Eid. Life soon returned to normal after the bombing, although the shops have not been as busy as this time last year.

But a shopkeeper in the Salhia market in the centre of Damascus blamed the slow business on economic hardship rather than fear, "The markets were empty even before the explosion. The problem is that people don’t have money to buy [gifts for Eid]. The bad economic situation along with crime takes away the joy of Eid.”

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists.)

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