x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Questions remain in Syria after bombing

The car bomb that shattered the peace of a Damascus morning two days ago, killing at least 17 people, remains shrouded in mystery.

The car bomb that shattered the peace of a Damascus morning two days ago, killing at least 17 people, remains shrouded in mystery. There has still been no claim of responsibility, and the Syrian authorities - always secretive on matters of security - have said nothing except that an investigation is under way. In terms of hard information, little is known, other than that apparently 200kg of explosives were loaded into a vehicle and then detonated on the busy airport road, close to a security service office. According to the authorities all casualties were civilians, with 17 killed so far, a death toll that could rise because some injuries were life threatening. "It's too early to say what this really means because we have no details, just silence," said Tharbit Salem, a Syrian political analyst. His office is 2km away from the bomb site and was shaken by the blast, a sign of just how powerful it was. "So far we have many questions and few answers," he continued. "Who is behind the bombing? Why now? What was the target? Where did they get the explosives? What was the motive? What do they want? "The only thing we really know is that this is extremely serious; this is a very dangerous game and it could be a new chapter for Syria." Despite its effective security network and deserved reputation as the safest country in the Middle East, Syria is not immune to acts of violence. In February a car bomb in Damascus killed Imad Moughniyah, a senior figure from Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group backed by Syria and Iran. But that, like other recent assassinations that have taken place here, seemed to be carefully executed and did not hit the general public. The same cannot be said of Saturday's blast. "I don't think this bomb is related to the Moughniyah murder or the shooting of Brig Mohammad Suleiman," Mr Salem said. "Unless of course the Israelis were behind that and behind this. We just do not know." According to Mr Salem, the car bomb probably has more in common with attacks by Islamic extremists; they have staged a prison uprising, shot up the US Embassy, and machine-gunned Syrian state TV. In the 1980s, Islamic militants also set off bombs, before they were crushed by the authorities. In the absence of hard facts, there are rumours, there are theories, there is coffee-shop spy-story speculation. Blame is liberally spread in all directions: it was the Israelis, the British, the Americans, the Saudis, the Iranians, the Lebanese or Syrians themselves. Given the various forces at work in the Middle East, even the most outlandish plots have an air of plausibility about them. Some of the stories doing the rounds say it was a suicide bombing, others that it was a remotely triggered bomb. That two cars were involved, that some off-duty Syrian military personnel were unlucky enough to be passing by at the time and got caught in the blast. One of the local rumours has it that a Syrian police officer who went to investigate the vehicles before the bomb went off, and who was wounded in the explosion, may have even spoken to the drivers. Naturally, all these tales are unconfirmed and unsubstantiated. But what is true is that these have been times of political change for Syria. Long blacklisted by Washington, Damascus has recently been rebuilding bridges with the West. There have been high-level public talks with the French and more subtle contacts with other European countries. New international business deals have been signed and the Syrians recently agreed to send ambassadors to both Lebanon and Iraq - hugely symbolic acts that pleased the West. There have also been the mediated discussions with Israel, a precursor to what could be direct peace talks next year. With all of those good signs, the regime in Damascus was riding high. Now the bomb has taken some of the shine of that slow building sense of optimism. And it has reminded many of the more ominous undercurrents pulling at the country. "Syria has been dancing with the devil and become an environment in which Islamic extremism has grown," said one Syrian commentator, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the remarks. He said Islamic militants were the most likely perpetrators of the attack. "For years we have seen a growing religious sentiment here, and there has not been a forceful enough defence of enlightened, educated, secular values. "So we have this incubator for Islamic sentiments and then the Americans invaded Iraq and poured fuel on the fire, and the al Qa'eda-type groups have grown. The bad economic situation is helping them, so is the crackdown on the liberal opposition." According to this line of thinking it is precisely these militants who, angered by a rapprochement between Damascus and the West and the possibility of peace with Israel, have decided to turn their fire on Syria, a country they were once inclined to leave alone in favour of more fertile hunting grounds. But, again, all of this is speculation. There are precious few facts, at least publicly available. The whole truth may never be known. "Even if the people who planted the bomb are caught," Mr Salem said, "we may never find who they were working for. They themselves may not even know who they are working for, or whose interests they are serving. "The key question in all of this may be answered in a fairly short time though," he added. "Is this a one off attack or is this the start of a series of attacks? My main fear is that this is something different, that the chaos could be spreading to Syria." psands@thenational.ae