Monday, December 7, 2009

Comment — Damascus' December 2009 Bus Explosion

December 7, 2009

DAMASCUS, Syria  On the morning of December 3, 2009, an explosion occurred to a bus parked at a gas station in the Syrian capital Damascus. According to Syrian officials three people died in the accident, which was due to the explosion of a probably damaged tire while it was being pumped. The Syrian interior minister, Said Sammour immediately ruled out the possibility of a terrorist attack ("There was no terrorism factor behind the bus incident", he said) and he explained that the three dead people were the bus driver plus two gas station workers who were inflating the tire. The minister added on the Syrian TV that the bus was carrying a group of Iranian tourists, but at the moment of the blast the pilgrims were not on-board. Damascus hosts the Sayyida Zeinab Mosque, which is dedicated to the granddaughter of Prophet Muhammad and is one of the most important worship places for the Shiites. In fact, in every season of the year this area of Damascus  around ten kilometers out of the central part of the city is invaded by Iranian buses transporting thousands of Iranian pilgrims.

Source: AP

The bus explosion took place while Saeed Jalili, the chief nuclear negotiator of Iran, was visiting Damascus for meetings with Syrian officials. Syria is the most important regional partner of Iran and the two countries are linked by thirty years of good political relations. Immediately after the explosion and well before the declarations of the interior minister, the common idea was that what happened was probably the explosion of a bomb.

 Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The images of the blast showed a bus badly damaged in its rear part with clear signs of fire. In addition to this, several witnesses suggested that it was not a tire explosion, but the explosion of a bomb that killed at least six people and caused some damages to the nearby buildings. One report from the Al-Manar TV (managed by Hezbollah) claimed that the blast was caused by a gas canister in a passenger's luggage. Reuters was told by one of the witnesses that body parts were scattered around the bus. A member of one of the Western embassies, speaking under condition of anonymity, had the opportunity to see the damaged bus and explained that according to him a tire explosion would have never being capable of damaging so badly the rear part of a bus. So it is quite possible that, instead of an exploded tire, the accident occurred because of a rudimentary bomb.  What is interesting to point out is that the images broadcast on TV were all related to the body of the bus with no general view of the areas around.

Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque: Exterior  (A. BACCI, 2009)

After a few days, here in Damascus, no one talks at least publicly anymore of the accident, which in the news it is not mentioned anymore. In general, Syria is a very safe country with very tight security controls; a place where bomb explosions are a rare event. All this said, it's true that in the last years something started to change for the worse with reference to acts of terrorism  regarding normal criminal actions Syria is still today a very safe country. As the British newspaper The Guardian says “until recently Syrians were used to seeing such blasts on their television screens rather than on the streets of their own cities, which they considered a rare stable point in the Middle East”. In fact, Syria in recent years started to be hit by bomb attacks. As a simple remainder, in 2008 three important terrorist attacks happened in Syria.  In January, General Mohammed Suleiman, a high-ranking aide to President Bashar Assad was killed in the city of Tartus, in February happened the assassination of Imad Mughnyah, a high-ranking military commander with Hezbollah (some said that it had been the Mossad to kill him), while in September a car-bomb attack on a security complex close to the Damascus airport killed 17 people and injured 14. The latter attack was attributed to a Sunni Lebanon-based Islamist group linked to al-Qaeda. In addition to these main events, both the U.S. and Israel have completed in the last years some raids against targets in the Syrian territory. For instance, three explosions alongside the Israeli raid on a suspected nuclear facility in 2007 and the late 2008 U.S. attack on the eastern border of Iraq.

Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque: Internal Decoration (A. BACCI, 2009)

All these accidents with no doubt risk derailing the process of escaping international isolation, a position in which Syria has been confined for the last decades.       

Assuming that the bus the explosion was not accidental and was due to a bomb, it is not easy to identify the possible culprits. In fact, there are at least four hypotheses, all having a certain degree of probability.  They are:

1) Internal or external Sunni extremists linked or sympathizing with al-Qaeda. They hate Shiites, they hit in the past and they always try to create problems to the Syrian government.
2) Israeli Mossad. In this case the Israeli intelligence service wanted to send a signal to the Syrian authorities. In fact, the explosion happened in the same moment when in Damascus there was Said Jalili, who is the Iranian chief nuclear negotiator.
3) Palestinian factions separated from the Syrian intelligence services.
4) A possible fight between different members of the Syrian security services.   

Of these four hypotheses, probably the first one is the most plausible. The Syrian authorities are really scared by the dangers of Sunni extremism. The father of Bashar Assad destroyed Sunni extremists in the 1980s. In particular, on February 2, 1982, the day of the Hama Massacre, the Syrian Army bombarded the city of Hama, which was at that time a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had started to wage an armed rebellion against President Hafez al-Hassad. Between 7,000 people to 40,000 people died and large areas of the old city were destroyed. After the Hama uprising, the Islamist insurrection was defeated, and since then the Muslim Brotherhood has operated in exile while other factions surrendered or slipped into hiding. Now, there are signs that the movement is rising one more time. At the same time, Shiite power increased in Syria thanks to the Iranian influence and Hezbollah, although it needs to be underlined that Syria’s Shia population is very small, i.e., around 13 percent, of whom many are the not very religious Alawites.

A good possibility is that the bus explosion may be linked still in relation to hypothesis A, to locally based militants who operate independently of external militants or powers. This possibility is well supported by the fact that the explosion was very rudimentary. Syria in the last years has facilitated the passage into Iraq through its borders of Sunni combatants desiring to fight in favor of the Iraqi insurgence. These people going back and forth from Syria to Iraq now strongly criticize two points: Syria's alliance with Iran (a Shia country) and the rapprochement with the West that President Bashar Assad is trying to implement. Within hypothesis A, the involvement of external forces is less credible because Syria has recently obtained positive successes in international politics and has partially escaped its decades-long international isolationism. Not long ago, Syria has implemented a détente with Saudi Arabia (with which the relation were quite strained only in 2008) and in addition to this, in Lebanon the newly formed government now includes pro-Syrian elements. In other words, the possible involvement of external backers for terrorist attacks in Syria has decreased during the last year.    

All this said, it is true that following the bloodshed events of the last two years, it's understandable the fears that President Assad and the government have in relation to the future Syrian political development. In the short term the Syrian regime may use the explosions of the last two years to bring about two actions. First, Syria could portray itself as a victim of Sunni extremism and, thanks to this stance, it could continue to march through the international political rehabilitation path. Second, it could control, in an even stricter way, its own Syrian population. Instead, the problem may linger in the long term, when it will be completely understood that this tough and harsh way of governing Syria is providing good results with reference to petty crime but no positive results at all in dealing with terrorism. In fact, Syria is becoming more and more like a chessboard where different radical groups risk fighting one another. A good idea could be for President Assad and for the government not to rule by force but to develop a political strategy involving all the different Syrian groups. With no doubt a very daunting challenge.  


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