Syria’s Regime Involved in the Damascus Bombings?

Jonathan Steele of the Guardian must have access to privileged information if he can write knowingly that those responsible for last Friday’s alleged car bombings in Damascus were “almost certainly al-Qaida sympathisers.” If I were in the intelligence-gathering business, I would not entrust such sensitive information to a man who has previously suggested that secular parties in Tunisia were “manipulating Islamophobia.”

Steele might wish to revisit the Assad regime’s narrative that Bin Ladenist forces are now setting things off in Damascus in coordination with not only the Syrian opposition but the United States and Israel. Surely a Guardian contributor will have found it suspicious that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem last week predicted that an al-Qaeda attack would occur in the country on the eve of the much anticipated arrival of an Arab League team of observers. Al-Moallem’s deputy, Faisal Mekdad, wasted no time lamenting his boss’s prediction come true: “On the first day after the arrival of the Arab observers,” Mekdad told the BBC shortly after the explosions were reported, “this is the gift we get from the terrorists and al-Qaeda. But we are going to do all we can to facilitate the Arab League mission.”

I love the use of the word “facilitate” in that sentence. As the prominent Syrian oppositionist Ammar Abdulhamid writes on his Syrian Revolution Digest blog, the whole purpose of Friday’s al-Qaeda Surprise story was to distract the world from witnessing yet another massacre in Idleb Province, this one focused on the village of Kafar Ouaid, where an estimated 95 people were killed in the time it took for Western eyes and ears to train on Damascus. Not that the Arab League requires regime prompting since the head of the delegation is General Mohammad Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, the former head of Sudanese military intelligence and the founder of the genocidal Janjaweed militiamen. (Al-Dabi’s former employer, Omar al-Bashir, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.) The sadism of this arrangement was well-caught by one Syrian human rights activist, who compared the delegation to a “rapist ... act[ing] as a forensic expert assistant while examining the victim.” And wouldn’t you know it: al-Dabi has just toured the battleground city of Homs with his contingent of government minders and given this Levantine Sarajevo the all-clear: “There wasn’t anything frightening at least while we were there. Things were calm and there were no clashes.”

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Would that the same could be said of the regime’s frenetically stage-managed, and at times grimly hilarious, response to the Damascus bombings, a vaguely successful campaign of cover-up and falsification that shows how limited Western attentions spans are still easily toyed with by totalitarians.

According to the Syrian state media, suicide bombers drove two cars rigged with explosives to points just outside two hard-to-reach facilities: the State Security Administration building and the Military Security base in Kafarsouseh, a neighborhood in central Damascus. These facilities are preceded by several military checkpoints, and any person or vehicle desiring access to them will need to carry a special permit. Cars also tend to be searched thoroughly before being able to roll right on up to the doorstep of secret police headquarters. When a terrorist attack is perpetrated, it takes oodles of man-hours of forensic analysis and data-gathering to determine the party responsible and the methods used. Not so in Syria. The regime’s Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported in an impressive 13 minutes that al-Qaeda was the culprit and that a man called Munir al-Binjali “conducted” the attack. The only problem is, al-Binjali is alive and well in Saudi Arabia, not blown to bits in Damascus.

Ah, but temporal contradictions are no match for Baathist logic. Syrian television cut straight to one of its many dolled-up talking heads, who reassured a troubled nation of the “arrest of the terrorists who blew themselves up today.” Here's a screen capture:

Screen capture from Syrian television

As for the 40 people allegedly killed, one Arab League observer surveying the wreckage abandoned his script and bothered to notice the neat circular configuration of corpses around one of the epicenters of the blasts, almost as if the bodies had been placed there deliberately. Eyewitnesses also testified that a road near one of the explosion sites had been blocked off by Syrian security well beforehand.

Perhaps unconvinced of the persuasiveness of its immediate conclusions, SANA then quoted Lebanese MP Walid Sukariyeh, who suggested that al-Qaeda was now the proxy of a “Zio-American project.” He failed to name which project in particular, although this accusation seems to have struck al-Qaeda as newsworthy, too. American terrorism expert Evan Kohlmann tweeted shortly after reports of the bombings: “Users on Al-Qaida’s ‘Shamukh’ web forum are reacting with deep skepticism to reports that Al-Qaida was behind today’s bombings in Damascus.” Even still, Lebanese Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn, whose party is allied with Hezbollah, which of course is allied with Assad, has it on good, albeit anonymous, authority that al-Qaeda is pouring into Syria via Lebanon. It may well be. However, the al-Qaeda–linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which are based in Lebanon, have issued a communiqué stating: “The mujahideen have no connection whatsoever to these sinister bombings [in Damascus] … Those who are truly responsible are the beneficiaries, the Assad regime and its intelligence agents.”

Why wouldn’t al-Qaeda or its affiliates want to take credit for such a high-profile attack in the most intensely invigilated state in the Middle East? Saad Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister and the son of assassinated Lebanese politician Rafik Hariri, has countered that the Assad regime orchestrated these attacks itself and that any accusations from Beirut have been “fabricated by the Syrian ministry and some of its tools in Lebanon.”

Denials of responsibility by al-Qaeda meant another baddie had to be found. So enter the Muslim Brotherhood. Agence France-Presse ran a story suggesting that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was behind the Damascus explosions because it claimed responsibility lay with “one of our victorious Sunni brigades.” The falsity of this claim was obvious to anyone with a knowledge of the Brotherhood’s non-sectarian public relations; “Sunni brigades,” indeed. AFP retracted its story once it realized that the website peddling this attribution was a fabrication of the Syrian mukhabarat (state intelligence). Here’s the Brotherhood’s real site, and here’s the fake. And here’s the amended AFP story.

The media did have it right in one crucial respect: the Damascus bombings have signaled a new stage in a nearly year-long campaign of mass murder, arbitrary arrest, and torture. Previously unable to provide any evidence for its claims that the Syrian revolution was the work of “armed gangs” or “terrorists,” claims which international human rights monitors and the United Nations have variously rubbished, the regime has now taken to elaborate falsifications of such evidence. Even if we were to believe that suicide bombers are now operating within Damascus, the regime’s pathological manipulation of events—and its cynical invention of pseudo-facts and red herrings—make it, at the very least, an accomplice to any consequent violence.

“Learn to predict a fire with unerring precision,” wrote that great anatomist of totalitarianism Czeslaw Milosz, “Then burn the house down to fulfill the prediction.” Need we any further instruction that Bashar al-Assad will burn down all of Syria to fulfill his?


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