Syria Seeking Political Mileage From Terror Attack, Analyst Says

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - A terror attack in the Syrian capital probably was carried out by an internal group, and it indicates that President Bashar Assad is in trouble, an expert here said on Wednesday.

A "terrorist band" exploded at least one bomb in the upscale diplomatic neighborhood of Mazza in Damascus on Tuesday. The "terrorists" then opened fire and threw grenades at security forces as they tried to make a getaway in another vehicle, the state-controlled SANA news agency said.

Two terrorists, a policeman and a woman passer-by were killed in crossfire, while two remaining terrorists were wounded and captured.

Police later raided a terrorist hideout in the nearby town of Khan al-Sheih, some 15 miles from Damascus and found a weapons cache, which included rocket propelled grenades and guns, SANA said.

The Canadian and Iranian Embassies, the Iranian state news agency, the British ambassador's residence and a Saudi consulate are all located in the Mazza neighborhood.

Although the U.S. Embassy in not near the site of the clashes, it reportedly was closed on Wednesday.

Syria is considered a rogue state and has long been on the State Department's list of nations that sponsor terrorism.

Tuesday's attack marked some of the worst violence in Syria since the government quashed a five-year insurgency by the radical Islamic Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s. To stop the rebellion, Syria nearly razed the city of Hama, killing an estimated 10,000 people.

Official statements linked Tuesday's attack to regional unrest and said that it was intended to foment instability in the country.

SANA quoted an unnamed Interior Ministry official saying that regional instability and chaos had created the climate for such acts. The official condemned "the terrorist incident which targets the stability and security of the citizen and homeland."

Syria's secular ruling Ba'ath party's newspaper Al-Baath said on Wednesday that anything that threatened the country's stability crossed the "red line."

"The whole region is witnessing terrorism now," the paper charged, citing Israel as the worst example. "The truth is that security and stability in Syria are the reddest line."

A Syrian analyst -- Dr. Fawzi al-Shueibi, head of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Damascus who is close to Assad -- said Damascus believes religious extremists linked to al Qaeda carried out the attack.

In an interview with the Qatari-based al Jazeera television network, al-Shueibi said he did not believe the attack was the work of Syrian or Kurdish groups.

But Israeli expert Dr. Yossi Olmert disagreed.

It is not clear who carried out the terrorist attack but it did not appear to be the work of al Qaeda, Olmert said in a telephone interview. The type of attack is not similar to those carried out by the group, he said.

Linking the attack to the international war against terrorism "gives a political advantage" to Syria, Olmert said, by showing that Syria, too, is being attacked. But, Olmert said he doubted that Damascus would be successful in establishing that connection.

According to Olmert, it is much more likely that the attack was carried out by an internal faction such as the Kurdish group. There have been a number of Kurdish arrests since clashes broke out in northern Syria last month between security forces and Arab tribesmen. Kurdish leaders have charged there is growing discrimination against them.

"It is clearly another indication that Bashar Assad is in trouble," said Olmert, who participated in Israeli negotiations with Syria in the 1990s.

"The economic situation is terrible. The army is in bad shape -- almost obsolete. He has troubles in his politics abroad," including American pressure, Olmert said.

Late last year, Congress passed the Syria Accountability Act requiring the president to slap sanctions on Syria if Damascus did not stop supporting terrorism and end its occupation of Lebanon.

Assad has thumbed his nose at U.S. demands that he close down the headquarters of Palestinian terrorist organizations in his capital, saying that they are merely public relations offices; nor has he complied with demands to disassociate with Hizballah, based in Syrian-controlled Lebanon.

Assad differentiates between groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizballah, which attack Israel, considering them to be legitimate resistance, and other radical Islamic groups such as al Qaeda.

Following the September 11 attacks on the U.S., Syria reportedly cooperated with the U.S. in following the trail of al Qaeda terrorists.

But later, Washington accused Syria of opening its borders to allow suicide bombers and fighters to cross into Iraq to fight American and allied troops there.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also accused deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein of moving his weapons of mass destruction into Syria for safekeeping prior to the start of the war in Iraq last year.

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