Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Violent Attack On U.S. Embassy Spotlights Syria

Eli Lake, The New York Sun:
The prospect of a thaw in relations between America and Syria was put on hold last night, despite the role Syria's security services played in thwarting a terrorist attack on the American Embassy in Damascus.

Spokesmen at the State Department and White House said yesterday that Syria must end its sponsorship and tolerance of terrorism if relations between the world's last Baathist state and its first modern democracy are to improve. Tom Casey and Tony Snow spoke after Secretary of State Rice praised Syria's internal security services for helping to fend off the embassy attack, which injured no American diplomats.

Four armed men began firing on the Damascus embassy yesterday morning from stolen cars that contained pipe bombs and grenades, according to wire reports. Syria's state-run press immediately blamed the attack on a small Lebanon-based terror organization, Jund al-Sham. The Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustafa, then repeated the allegation on CNN. READ MORE

If the official Syrian version of events is correct, yesterday's incident reflects poorly on President Assad. The American Embassy is in one of the most secure neighborhoods in Damascus, it is less than 1,000 feet from one of Mr. Assad's palaces, and the president's motorcade often passes by the site of the attack. If four gunmen and a truck filled with explosives and weapons reached the entrance to America's embassy, they were also perilously close to high-level regime targets.

"The wider question involves the nature of the authoritarian regime," a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former Pentagon aide on Syria policy, David Schenker, told The New York Sun. "Are they losing control? We saw something earlier this year: Syrian anti-terror police fought a gun battle in June with terrorists."

Mr. Schenker and other analysts also said they doubt that the whole story of the attack has come out.

"A couple of things like this have happened before," Mr. Schenker said. "The embassy was stormed with the facilitation of the government, once in 1998 and once in 2000. The Syrians have been a welcoming environment for any number of terrorists for decades, so it should come as no surprise that unauthorized terrorists have taken up residence there and would be able to pull off this kind of attack."

The scholar also noted that Syrian security forces failed to stop Muslims from attacking Scandinavian embassies in February over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The Syrian security services fired at the attackers. Wires reported yesterday that three assailants were killed and a fourth was taken into Syrian custody. Another authority on the Levant, Tony Badran of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said he was skeptical about the story that Jund al-Sham carried out the attacks.

"This is the most heavily fortified area of Damascus. There is a history of fake or semifake encounters with so-called Islamists. Every time the regime wants to show that it is embattled or that it shares the same enemy as the United States, there is an incident like this," Mr. Badran said. He added that he has seen Arabic-language press reports from the region questioning the authenticity of Jund al-Sham. "I am not even sure they are a legitimate organization. Name one successful operation against Syria they have ever conducted," Mr. Badran said.

Mr. Casey said he has no information that suggests the Syrian regime was behind yesterday's embassy attacks. When asked what effect the incident would have on America's relationship with Syria, he said, "There are many issues that are out there that we want to see the Syrian government take action on, including issues related to their support to terror. Certainly, those broader concerns haven't changed as a result of this particular incident."

America has said for two years that Syria is providing a safe haven and financial support for terrorist leaders affiliated with the saboteurs of Iraq's elected government. The response from Damascus yesterday was also frosty. Mr. Mustafa said in a statement to the press that America has exacerbated the problem of terrorism in the region by favoring Israel and invading Iraq. "The U.S. should take this opportunity to review its policies in the Middle East and start looking at the root causes of terrorism, and broker a comprehensive peace in the Middle East," he said.