Today's car bomb near a "security installation" in Damascus has Syrians scratching their heads. The bomb, which Syrian authorities put at 200kg, was detonated near a major intersection on the way to the Shiite Sayyida Zeinab Shrine on the outskirts of the Syrian capital. Journalist friends covering the story said the bomb detonated before it reached the security compound, indicating the explosives might have gone off prematurely.
The bomb comes only days after President Assad ordered Syrian forces to mass on Lebanon's northern border in what most believe is an attempt to confront passage of hard line Sunni Islamists who have been in skirmishes in northern Lebanon with Alawites, the sect of Shiite sect of Islam from which the Syrian leadership hails.
The blast was the latest in a string of attacks in Syria, a country whose government prides itself on maintaining a tight grip on security. In February, Hezbollah operative Imad Mughniyya was killed in a massive car bomb in Damascus near a number of the country's security headquarters. In August, General Mohammed Sulieman was killed in Tartous in what the Syrian state has described as "an assassination".
Earlier high profile attacks included the September 2006 attack on the US embassy in Damascus and the September 2004 car bomb in the Sheikh Saad area of Damascus that killed an member of the Palestinian group Hamas.
But there have been a number of lesser profile attacks as well. In December 2005, security forces attacked a “takfiri cell” – a group that unilaterally declares other Muslims apostates. Members of such groups have been known to inflict their punishment by, among other things, strapping on explosive belts and walking into western hotels in the region. While the attack got some play in the Syrian media, the well-connected al Hayat journalist Ibrahim Hamidi told me privately at the time that the attack was the first instance the authorities used helicopters against civilians in Syria since the state’s bombardment of Hama in 1982. In his subsequent article on the incident in January 2006, Hamidi cited “informed sources” who said that when the security forces surrounded the cell’s hideout, its members refused to give up prior to the government’s air raid. They also accused the security forces of being “infidels.”
In May 2005, the Syrian authorities announced that it had broken up a “terrorist cell” in the Damascus neighborhood of Daf al-Shawq. As Syrian TV showed footage of the cell’s arms depot, the state announced that the cell was but part of a larger organization, the Munazama Jund al-Sham l’wahda wa jihad (The Soldiers of Damascus Organization for Unity and Jihad). Subsequent reports indicated that the group was well organized, and was distributing propaganda throughout Syria. According to Hamidi’s analysis of the group’s pamphlets, the group seeks to a “establish an ‘Islamic Emirate’ or ‘caliphate’ in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.”
In April 2004, Syrian authorities foiled an attack on an abandoned UN building in Mezzeh, a modern district of Damascus. According to Hamidi's report, three of the four assailants had gone to Iraq to fight US forces in the days before Saddam’s fall. Many observers (including myself) and diplomats doubted the authenticity of the attacks, since they came while Washington was making a decision in how to apply the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SALSA), which was signed into law in December 2003 but had a six-month window of implementation.