Robin Yassin-Kassab

Bomb in Damascus

with 12 comments

P1071119This morning a car bomb exploded in Mahlak street, Damascus, at a junction with the airport road and not far from Sitt Zainab. Seventeen are dead and 14 injured. That sounds like a powerful bomb, killing more than it maims.

In 1997 I found myself walking over what appeared to be blood and oil stains in the Victoria area of the city. There were soldiers gathering shards of glass and hosing the street down. Bystanders were subdued, not meeting your eye. I asked someone what had happened and he mumbled something about a gas leak. In fact a bus had been blown up minutes after leaving the old station at Baramkeh, and nine people had been killed. Afterwards there were whispers about Lebanese Maronites (the Lebanese Sunnis still supported Syria) being behind it, and of course Israel was a suspect. But the whole thing was kept as quiet as possible. The deal the regime has made with the people is: allow us corruption and thuggishness if we give you in return a foreign policy which doesn’t shame you and, most fundamentally, a guarantee of security. Exploding buses are a message from whoever sends them to the Syrian people, and the literal translation of the message is: the regime can’t protect you.

In the early eighties the extremist wing of the Muslim Brothers, backed by Ba’athist Iraq, the imperial client in Jordan, and others, fought anyone they considered to be connected to the regime – by family or politics or sect – in the streets. The regime gave as good as it got, or worse, and the Brothers were defeated. In recent years there have been political assassinations and shoot-outs between Wahhabi-nihilists and the security forces, but today’s horror is the first random act of violence targetting civilians in Syria since 1997. Given its position between Palestine, Lebanon, Turkish Kurdistan and Iraq, and given its delicate ethnic and sectarian composition, Syria has indeed remained reasonably secure and stable.

On July 17th 1981, Israel murdered 300 civilians by bombing residential tower blocks in Beirut which may or may not have housed PLO offices. On March 8th 1985, the CIA failed to kill Ayatullah Fadlallah with a car bomb in Beirut, but succeeded in killing 80 of his neighbours. So today’s attack could well have been inspired by the US or Israel – Imad Mughniyeh was killed by a car bomb, and if there was a specific target this morning we will never hear of him if he hasn’t been killed. So close to Sitt Zainab – the shrine of Hussein’s sister venerated by the Shia, and the home of tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees – the target could have been a Sadrist leader, an Iranian official, a Hizbullah man. This means the power with the motive could be the Hakim group, or the CIA, or March 14-linked Lebanese Salafis, or al-Qa’ida in Mesopotamia. Continue the list for your own amusement.

I certainly hope it was Israel, because then there will be some sort of political economy to the violence to come (though 17 dead is pretty damn expensive). I fear that the Salafi connection is more likely, and I dread this. The al-Watan correspondent in Damascus says the car exploded on the way to its target. What if the shrine itself is hit? It would be a catastrophe. If there is a concerted attempt to bring Iraq’s sectarian war to Syria, the near future is going to be very bloody. Allah yastoor.

It could of course be some kind of grand Saudi-Israeli-Salafi plot. Or anything else. This is all speculation – but let’s have a good speculate, friends, because we’re not going to get any closer to the truth than we are now.

And there’s one positive note: Syrian TV reported the explosion almost immediately. This is a change from the usual security silence.

Syria was silent on the Israeli attack of September 6th 2007, long enough to allow Israel and America to build their narrative of events. Now early results of an International Atomic Energy Agency investigation into the site bombed say that there is no sign of the North Korean-built plutonium-producing reactor the Americans had imagined.

Why then, if Syria had nothing to hide, did it bulldoze the area? Because the Syrian regime saw the rubble as a visible humiliation which it wished to erase. And because the Syrian regime doesn’t possess even the concept of public relations.

The nuclear explanation was always absurd: if there were any real intelligence that Syria had a nuclear weapons programme you can bet that America and Israel would be making a lot more noise than they are. If Syria did have ambitions to score a strategic balance with nuclear-armed Israel – which wouldn’t be wrong by conventional moral standards – it would make much more sense to have Iran, with its huge spaces and high capabilities, make the bombs. But the Syrians aren’t stupid. They can’t afford nuclear weapons politically or financially. Isn’t Hizbullah much more effective a deterrent anyway?

It seems most likely that the raid on Syria had something to do with Israeli preparations for Iran (the Guardian says this week that the US refused to back Israeli war plans for Iran) – to send a message certainly, and to test Russian warning systems which may be stationed in both Syria and Iran.

Incidentally, Syria’s contact with the IAEA, Muhammad Suleiman, was mysteriously assassinated on the beach last month.

We’ll see what tomorrow brings. Khair, insha’allah.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 27, 2008 at 10:21 pm

Posted in Lebanon, Syria, USA, Wahhabism, Zionism

Tagged with ,

12 Responses

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  1. Qunfuz, as usual, you have raised a few thought provoking points.

    I fear that Iraq’s sectarian war has been exported. And I also picked up on the Syrian TV reporting this straight away. As Rime Allaf repeatedly says, Syria doesn’t know how to project its image – and the media blackout after any attack is just part of that. Maybe, after three attacks in one year, Syria is finally learning that letting the cameras roll does more good than harm.

    I wasn’t in Damascus in 1997, so the bus bomb holds almost mythical value to me. I have walked past where I think it was, and tried to imagine, but I can’t. Where was it? On Jisr Victoria? On a Baramkeh to Bab Touma bus? (The state bus?)


    September 28, 2008 at 12:56 am

  2. I could take you to the spot, Sasa, if we were there. It was behind the national museum and the tekkiyeh suleimaniyeh but closer to Hijaz, in an area of bookshops. I believe it was an intercity coach that exploded, but I don’t know. By the time I stumbled across the scene most of the wreckage had been removed.


    September 28, 2008 at 5:23 pm

  3. look at the time we have reached , and the situation where we have dozens of theories to raise in order to conclude of who has done this.

    Israel is no longer the only suspect.gosh how long this list is getting !

    the syrian Tv is even more digusting with this change they have done. you should have a look at the news (alshareet alakhbari). it’s like a commercial for a play , and syria is upset of who has accepted the invitation to to come to thank him back for coming, and who hasn’t to tell the world that he dared not to come and pay his consolation.
    there is no news about those who died. no news about their burial.
    only the president recieved a call from ma ba3ref meen to support him and the president recieved a letter to comfort him!!

    بالفعل شامنا فرجة


    September 28, 2008 at 6:24 pm

  4. I think I can picture where you mean – in the area of bookshops and stationary shops outside the University, on the road from Hijaz to Baramkeh behind the museum.

    Does that mean you will be in Damascus soon?


    September 28, 2008 at 9:29 pm

  5. I met the Syrian ambassador to the US a few years ago at Harvard. He seemed to understand PR.

    I was never convinced Imad Mughniyeh was truly assassinated. If he wanted to retire, faking an assassination might have been a reasonable way to make it possible.

    Could you turn on links so that I could occasionally link some of your very interesting articles into my blog?

    Joachim Martillo

    October 4, 2008 at 10:35 pm

  6. Ya rait, Sasa, ya rait. But no.

    Joachim – Imad Moustapha does understand PR, you’re right. He was very good on American TV responding to the north korea/ nuclear claims. There are a few other spokespeople, like Buthaina Shaban, who know how to put a point across coherently in English. But there needs to be organisation and strategy and development of Syrian media. Look how good the Zionists are at it, and how very bad the Syrians.

    This subject needs to be written more about, and I will.

    Joachim – I am a techno-idiot and I have no idea how to do anything on this blog except shout. Therefore I am unable to ‘turn on links’, whatever that may mean. I would like to, and I’ve looked around on the site, but I still have no idea what to do. While we’re at it, look at the white strip attached so unpleasantly to the amazon link for my novel. I don’t know how to remove the white strip. I can’t even remember how I put the book link there in the first place.


    October 5, 2008 at 10:29 pm

  7. Hi,

    It is me again. I started reading your book yesterday. However, since my sister was sleeping could not go past Chapter One.

    My first impression was that i am really impressed, it is very smooth read, however by the time i finished the chapter, i felt my heart in my throat! I was thinking of a friend of my mother’s… this is really and exactly what happened to her brother. He went to study in Beirut. he passed through Syria… and it was as if he never existed. The only difference is that he still is in the category of having never existed. It has been more than 20 years now, and they had to declare him dead for inheritence purposes.

    All through the ight, my brain was stuck in a loop, where i was praying that it is not the father who has informed on the uncle…!

    Anyway… will keep you posted on what is going on.


    October 16, 2008 at 11:03 am

  8. Madas – Have we spoken before? You say ‘again’ but I can’t remember you. Please remind me. I hope you enjoy the book. I’m involved in the next one now, and can no longer bear to think about the first.


    October 16, 2008 at 11:18 am

  9. No we have not 🙂 I sent you a comment yesterday… and thus the again… (I don’t see it… looks like it did not pass the editing system).

    Good luck with your second book… does your comment mean you don’t want to hear any comments at all about the first book? I usually like to discuss interesting books with people and who better than the author…?

    my interest in your book comes from the religious and cultural mixture that makes sami Sami as i am the result of a similar diversity… and things sound eerily familiar.

    if you are fine with an exchange of ideas, then will give you more comments as i make my way through the book….


    October 16, 2008 at 3:53 pm

  10. Certainly talk about the book if you want to, Madas. I didn’t receive a comment from you yesterday. Something must have gone wrong.


    October 16, 2008 at 4:14 pm

  11. Basically, i was telling you how i was bored yesterday and decided to visit a book store (Readers). There i found your book, and curiosity (as always) made the decision…

    Then i was complaining that your book cost 23 JDs! and that i consider that a crime (against you really) since that was the only reason that would have stopped me Basically, I was telling you how I was bored yesterday and decided to visit a book store (Readers). There, I found your book, and curiosity (as always) made the decision…

    Then I was complaining that your book cost 23 JDs! and how I consider that a crime (against you really) since that would have been the only reason that would have stopped me from buying your book (is this sentence correct grammatically?) However i made a deal with the guy, that if I returned the book within a week, I can exchange it for another book or two…

    So I will try to finish it within my time limit, because honestly… it is too expensive! Please don’t be offended…

    Ohh and i commented on your picture… but i won’t repeat the comment.


    October 16, 2008 at 6:47 pm

  12. Quick Comment

    I decided to keep the book.


    October 20, 2008 at 8:44 pm

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