Apologies to David Schenker

My apologies to David Schenker. Several days ago I wrote: “David Schenker of WINEP and Tony Badran of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies are pushing [a] conspiracy theory.” The conspiracy theory I was referring to is the notion that the Syrian government was behind the terrorist attack on the American embassy.

In fact, Tony Badran argues that Syria was behind the attack, not David Schenker. I incorrectly lumped the two together because this is what Guy Darst of the Boston Herald did in his misleading article, cited as the source of my remarks.

I have since communicated with David Schenker. He sent me two articles about the embassy bombing, one of which Darst borrowed from. By taking Schenker’s remark out of its original context and plopping it in with Badran’s more serious accusations, Schenker was done an injustice and I compounded it.

The two articles that give a full account of David Schenker’s argument about the Damascus bombing make clear that he stops short of arguing that the government set up the bombers. Eli Lake of the New York Sun, quotes Schenker as follows:

“A couple of things like this have happened before,” Mr. Schenker said. “The embassy was stormed with the facilitation of the government, once in 1998 and once in 2000. The Syrians have been a welcoming environment for any number of terrorists for decades, so it should come as no surprise that unauthorized terrorists have taken up residence there and would be able to pull off this kind of attack.”

Schenker himself writes at counterterrorism.org :

In terms of context, though, the key point is that if this attack was indeed perpetrated by Islamists, it is the direct result of the double game being played by the Asad regime. The regime supports Sunni and Shiite Islamist militants in Lebanon, Palestinian Authority, and Iraq, and in the past has not acted against terrorists entering Jordan. Syria no longer cooperates with the US on Al Qaida, either. Given the regime’s friendly disposition toward terrorists, it would be no surprise if some unauthorized terrorist organizations were setting up shop in Damascus.

As these quotes make clear, Schenker did not suggest that Syrian authorities authorized the bombings. He argues that Syria was burnt by the fires it has started and keeps aflame. This is very different from Badran’s argument.

As for Badran and Vox’s claims that I contradict myself by not subscribing to the notion that the Syrian government was behind the bombing, this is specious. Tony quotes an article published by me on Syria Comment, but written by Abdulla Ta’i, which argued that Syrian authorities had set jihadists up to be arrested last year. In the incident that Abdullah was describing, the authorities apprehended the extremists before an attack was carried out. I cannot say whether Abdulla’s informant was correct, but the likelihood of it being correct seemed higher to me than much of the speculation done by people with no contact with Syria. Vox quotes a second article written by a friend, which explained how Syrian authorities allowed and managed the demonstration which ended with the burning of the Danish embassy.

The implications of both articles are provocative, but they don’t add up to Syria staging the embassy attack in which quite a few people were hurt, almost all Syrians. There is a big difference between staging the capture of jihadists or encouraging a crowd to attack the Danish embassy when no one is in it and trying to blow up the US embassy when it is full of people. In the same light, it is easy for Americans to understand why the US armed and funded jihadists in Afghanistan to fight Russia, but they don’t think America is behind jihadism when it doesn’t serve its interests or kills Americans. Syrians commonly use the Afghan connection to argue that the CIA was running Zarqawi as an agent in Iraq.

I gave four reasons why it doesn’t make sense for Syria to stage the jihadist bombing of the embassy. I think Syria genuinely wants to engage the West if the West is willing to compromise. I don’t believe Asad wants the American embassy in Damascus to be shuttered, halting the very limited means of communication that remain open between him and Washington.

One final remark about the articles written by other people that I publish. All I find interesting. Most I see the sense in. Some I don’t believe, for example, I don’t think it is likely that Hariri was killed by Islamic extremists. All the same, given the importance of the Hariri trial and the fact that most Syrians with whom I discussed it are not convinced that Syria did it, I publish alternative views, if they are backed up with an argument. The comment section is the best place to shoot down such speculation. Sometimes I make mistakes, as I did with David Schenker. I am happy to apologize when I know I am wrong.

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