Bombing the US Embassy – What Does it Mean?

The attempted bombing of the US embassy in Damascus has stirred up a debate over whose fault it is that the attack took place.

On Sept 12, four militants attempted to bomb the US embassy with a car bomb, which did not go off. One Syrian officer was killed; three of the attackers were killed and the forth wounded in a shoot out with Syrian guards. He has since died in hospital of his wounds.

Eleven innocents were wounded including seven Syrian telephone company employees working in the area, as well as an Iraqi man and woman. A senior Chinese diplomat was hit by shrapnel while standing on top of a garage within the Chinese Embassy compound.

Imad Mustapha, Syria’s ambassador in Washington speculated that Jund al-Sham may have been responsible for the attack because it has been involved in several previous botched attacks over the past two years. Here is a bit of background on the group published by the Toronto Star. But we don’t know what the group represented.

According to the NYTimes, one of the attackers first tried to gain access to the embassy by brandishing a bouquet of flowers and telling the guard that he wanted to deliver them to the embassy staff as a gesture of condolence for the September 11 attacks. When the ruse didn’t work, the attackers began to yell, “God is Great” and opened fire with machine guns and grenades. My good friend Ayman Abdelnour witnessed the attack and describes what happened to the NYTimes.

Although secretary of State Rice thanked Syria for helping to save American lives, the usual enmity between Syria and the US quickly returned. Imad Mustapha blamed the US for “fuelling extremism” in the region. US officials shot back that Syria supports terrorist and must stop it.

Mr. Bush’s “policies in the Middle East have fuelled extremism, terrorism and anti-U.S. sentiment,” the Syrian government said in a statement issued by its embassy in Washington. It said Syrian security forces fought bravely to defend the U.S. embassy.

Describing it as “a heinous terrorist attack by an extremist group,” Damascus also said it was about time the Bush administration reassessed its Middle East policies.

The White House shot back, suggesting it was up to Damascus to change.

“Syrian police forces did their job, and they were professional about it,” said Mr. Bush’s spokesman Tony Snow. “Now the next step is for Syria to play a constructive role in the war on terror: Stop harbouring terrorist groups, stop being an agent in fomenting terror and work with us to fight against terror.”

Mohammad Habash, an MP and head of the Islamic Studies Center, said it was not surprising that extremist groups would emerge to fight ‘the US project in the (Middle East) region’ and that there was widespread exasperation over the ‘absolute US bias towards Israel’ in that country’s recent fighting with the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.

Time Magazine’s Scott McCloud has a good article, explaining that this event really means that Syria has a growing terror problem like all the other states of the region. But in the conclusion he adds a paragraph pitched to please his US readers. He says the attack can be read as “reaping what you sow” or chickens coming home to roost. As he writes:

Another way to look at it is that the Syrian regime may be reaping what it sows. Among Arab leaders, Assad is alone in his outspoken support for Islamic militant groups like Hizballah in Lebanon, and the Palestinian factions, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. U.S. officials believe that the Assad regime has secretly aided the three-year-old Sunni insurgency in Iraq, providing passage for jihad volunteers and funds, and safe haven for insurgency leaders.

But this doesn’t make much sense. The al-Qaeda type jihadist groups are not emerging in Syria because Syria encourages them in other countries.

Syria has been one of the most skillful and successful opponents of al-Qaeda related jihadists. There have been no successful jihadist operations in Syria in the last 20 years. This is an excellent record when compared to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Morocco, and we won’t mention American occupied Iraq. Are all these states sowing what they reap? I think not.

Why has Syria been successful against al-Qaeda-type groups? Either it is because the Syrian mukhabarat (security services) are better and more skillful then their counterparts in neighboring countries, or it is because President Asad’s policy of opposing the United States has been popular and has protected Syria from the wrath of takfiri groups, despite the regime being secular and dominated by Alawites, who are considered Kufr by Salafis. It is probably a combination of both. Syria is a stricter and controlled police state than its neighbors, which gives the mukhabarat wider latitude to impinge on civil society. Also, Asad’s policies have generally been lauded by the public. Both have protected Syrians from terrorism.

If we are to follow the logic of “chickens coming home to roost.” We would have to conclude that Syria has fewer chickens than other Arab regimes, the United States, Britain, Spain, Indonesia and Turkey, which have all been subject to more devistating attacks than Syria.

As for the conspiracy theorists who suggest that the attack on the Embassy was a Syrian government inspired job, it doesn’t make sense.

1. Why would Syria allow a police officer to be killed and seven other Syrians to be wounded, in an unsuccessful attack?

2. To assume that the recrudescence of jihadist groups in Syria over the last two years is inspired by the regime doesn’t make sense. The spread of jihadist groups throughout the region has been dramatic. Why would one assume that Syria was somehow magically spared this same phenomenon?

3. Since the end of the Lebanon War, Asad and his entire cabinet have been insisting that it is time for the peace process to be set into motion. Asad has been asking for engagement with the US and land for peace. Why would he blow up the US embassy?

4. The entire axis of “bad,” or whatever it is being called these days, is lying low and trying to attenuate tensions with the West. Iran is talking with the Europeans and trying to be accommodating. Hizbullah has not made a peep in 3 weeks as it tries to get its feet back on the ground. It is complying with the ceasefire much better than Israel is. Hamas has just created a government of national unity with the PLO so that it can speak to the Israelis through a veil. Syria is insisting it wants negotiations with Israel and has accepted 1701 and accommodated Kofi Annan. There is a pattern of accommodation among the anti-American countries in the region. They are trying to patch up relations that were frayed during the war. It does not make sense for Syria to diverge from what is clearly a unified game plan on the part of the anti-American front. Why would it bomb the US at a time that it is pushing for engagement?

The success of the Syrian authorities in thwarting the terrorist operation against the American embassy underlines the usefulness of the Syrian regime in the fight against al-Qaeda and takfiri organizations. We the regime to be toppled, there would be a lot more of them in Syria.

Americans like to say that Syria is one of the worst supporters and proliferators of terrorism because it supports Hizbullah, Hamas, and other militant Palestinian organizations, lumping both al-Qaeda type jihadists in with Hizbullah and the like. This is one of the great weaknesses of American policy. It represents the blindness of American analysts.

Like it or not, there is a big difference between Salafist groups and Hizbullah or even Hamas. The latter two have fairly concrete goals that are limited to liberating land they claim as theirs. Bin Laden and associates are much more radical and have global scope and goals. Syria is not wrong to distinguish between the two. Washington would be well served to do the same. That does not mean that Washington need grant Hizbullah and Hamas all their demands – of course not. Nonetheless, Washington is foolish to believe that it cannot bargain with them and must destroy them rather than search for a political solution. There is a political solution to Hizbullah and Hamas. Bin Laden would be much more difficult to satisfy.

Farid Zakaria explains why this is a big mistake in his excellent article:

Mao & Stalin, Osama & Saddam
By Fareed Zakaria

Bush is starting to repeat one of the central errors of the cold war: treating our enemies as one entity.

Sept. 18, 2006 issue – I’m glad George W. Bush is using the bully pulpit to clarify the war on terror. Many of Bush’s basic ideas—such as the need for reform in the Arab world—are sensible; it’s their simplistic and botched execution, coupled with a mindless unilateralism, that have derailed his foreign policy. But in the past week the president, seeking to shore up domestic support for his policies, has been redefining the nature of the enemy. In doing so he is making a huge conceptual mistake, one that could haunt American foreign policy for decades. (Continue)

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