DAMASCUS // The weekend attack that killed 17 people in Damascus was the work of a suicide bomber, according to Syrian officials. It marks a new departure for the Arab republic. Although affected by violent Muslim extremists in the past, Syria had thus far escaped the sort of mass casualty suicide bombings that have hit neighbouring Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.
In Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli yesterday, a car bomb hit a bus carrying soldiers, killing at least five people and wounding at least 24. In Syria, preliminary findings by antiterrorist officers indicated the 200kg of explosives used in Saturday's bombings were carried in a GMC Suburban - a large sports utility vehicle - that had crossed into the country the day before. The Syrian authorities did not reveal which country the vehicle had entered from, saying only it was an "Arab" neighbour, apparently ruling out Israel and Turkey.
No specific group has been identified as responsible, with Syrian state-run media blaming a "takfir organisation". "Takfir" refers to non-belief in Islam, and is a term used by extremists to justify the murder of other Muslims. Shiites in Iraq commonly refer to Sunni radicals, including al Qa'eda, as "Takfiris". Tharbit Salem, a Syrian analyst, said it was the worst-case scenario for Islamic militants to have been behind the bombing.
"It's what frightens me the most," he said. "It means the chaos is spreading. No one has claimed responsibility and civilians were killed. Those behind the attack apparently just want to spread mayhem - I think they call it 'creative chaos'." DNA tests are being conducted in an attempt to identify the attacker and, Syrian authorities said, arrests had already been made in connection with the attack. Inquiries are continuing.
A high-ranking Syrian army officer, Brig Gen George Gharbi, together with his son, were among the dead. They had been driving along the main airport road at the time of the attack, according to relatives of the two men. Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, said this month that he was worried about "extremists forces" in Tripoli, warning that Islamist militants were coming to dominate the north Lebanese city.
He accused foreign states of backing Islamists there, in what was widely seen as an accusation against Saudi Arabia. Relations between Riyadh and Damascus have been cool, with the two backing different factions in Lebanon and the Saudis alarmed by Syria's close ties to Iran. Last week Syrian troops reinforced positions along the border, in an apparent attempt to head off smugglers and possibly attempts by militants to illegally cross into Syria.
Muslim militants have been behind a series of attacks in recent years inside Syria, despite its security services having a reputation of being ruthlessly efficient. In Sept 2006, Islamic militants assaulted the US Embassy in Damascus, an attack that resulted in the death of three gunmen and a Syrian guard. Three months earlier, a battle between Syrian security forces and militants near the defence ministry left four militants and a police officer dead.
In Nov 2006, a suicide bomber blew himself up after a gun battle broke out on the Syrian-Lebanese border. Most of those attacks were blamed by the Syrian authorities on Jund al Sham - "Soldiers of Syria" - a group with links to al Qa'eda. Militants often denounce Mr Assad's regime for its secularism and have at times called for its overthrow. More recently, a bloody summer uprising in a Syrian prison was apparently orchestrated by Islamic extremist inmates. Some of them had been captured after returning from fighting the US military in Iraq.
Syria has been undergoing a rapprochement in its relations with the West, after years of diplomatic isolation. It has been holding indirect talks with Israel and officially recognised the Iraqi government by agreeing to an exchange of ambassadors, both moves that would anger Sunni Muslim extremists. email@example.com