Making Mischief in Damascus


As the days pass since the car bombing in the southern suburbs of Damascus, furious speculation is continuing as to who was responsible.

No organization has taken responsibility – leaving the rumor mill free to grind on.

The Syrian authorities, following an initial attempt to point the finger at Israel, have now concluded that Sunni jihadists carried out the bombing. The Syrian al-Watan newspaper is claiming that the authorities have located and detained members of the cell responsible for the attack. According to al-Watan, none of the individuals being held are Syrian citizens.

The Syrian government may now be expected to cast itself in the role of an ally of the west in the War on Terror. We will be reminded in the coming weeks of the “secular” nature of the Syrian regime. Hafez Assad’s fight with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s will be recalled.

However, the true relationship between the current Syrian regime and the forces of the Sunni jihad is as opaque and ambiguous as might be expected from the Assad regime.

A Federal District Court in Washington DC last week issued an opinion in favor of the plaintiffs in a case brought against Syria by relatives of Jack Armstrong and Jack Hensley.

Armstrong and Hensley were US civilian engineers who were kidnapped and beheaded in Iraq in 2004 by the al-Tawhid wal-Jihad organization. This group, headed at the time by the Jordanian Islamist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is also known as “al-Qaida in Iraq.”

The court found evidence of substantial assistance given by Syria to this organization.

Syrian assistance to Zarqawi included providing him with a Syrian passport. The court found that Syria acted as a “logistical hub” for al-Qaida in Iraq, providing safe haven for training activities and facilitating the transport of fighters overland en route to Iraq.

The Zarqawi organization planned some of its most notorious operations from Syrian soil. These included the murder of American diplomat Lawrence Foley in Jordan in 2002, and a failed plot in 2004 to destroy Jordanian intelligence headquarters using a chemical weapon. The latter operation, if it had succeeded, would have resulted in tens of thousands of fatalities.

The court found that Syrian President Bashar Assad personally appointed the head of the Iraqi Ba’ath party, Fawzi al-Rawi, to meet with Zarqawi’s lieutenants to discuss operations against the Americans.

Rawi, who drew a Syrian government salary, was also responsible for channelling funds to al-Qaida in Iraq.

A Salafi preacher, Abu Qaqa’a, who was also a Syrian government employee, was permitted to conduct recruiting activities for al-Qaida in Syria. In addition, training camps were maintained in Syria, according to the testimony of al-Qaida fighters captured by US forces in Iraq.

Senior operatives of the Zarqawi group crossed to their main training camp in Rawha, Iraq, with the assistance of Syrian Military Intelligence officials.

In finding for the plaintiffs, the US District Court ordered Syria to pay them the sum of $412,909,587.

The evidence produced in this trial indicates Syria’s willingness to make alliance with jihadi terror groups in the furtherance of its policy goals. The alliance with Zarqawi, of course, was intended to bring about a defeat of the US project in Iraq.

It is also noteworthy that some of the names of the operatives recalled in the trial later surfaced in a different context.

The court notes that the individual responsible for financing the Zarqawi operation to kill US diplomat Lawrence Foley was one Shaker al-Absi, a Palestinian.

Following the murder of Foley, Absi fled to Damascus, from where Syria refused Jordanian requests for his extradition. The court notes that Syria claimed to be holding Absi in custody. In fact, he was running a training camp for fighters bound for Iraq.

Absi then re-surfaced two years later, as the head of the mysterious “Fatah al-Islam” group in the Nahr al Bared refugee camp in Lebanon. This previously unknown organization engaged in a bloody and protracted fight with the Lebanese army in 2007.

At the time, Fatah al-Islam was depicted in the western media as an independent jihadi organization. The evidence now suggests that its leader, in addition to being an operative of the global jihad, was also acting on behalf of the Syrian regime.

A number of Lebanese commentators believe that the latest bombings in Damascus are part of a larger Syrian plan to facilitate a climate whereby Syria may re-introduce its forces into Lebanon, under the pretext of acting to restore order.

It is impossible, of course, to confirm these theories. However, the bomb in Tripoli on Monday, along with the gathering of Syrian forces along the Syrian-Lebanese border indicate that such thoughts should not be dismissed out of hand.

What may be said with certainty is that Syria, which is now seeking to portray itself as the victim and target of Sunni jihadi terrorism, has been an enthusiastic sponsor and supporter of groups belonging to that trend in the very recent past.

Now, it appears, this particular golem has risen against its master. Or has it?

Middle East analyst Fouad Ajami once said that Syria’s main asset, which enabled it to play a role in regional affairs out of proportion to its size or wealth, was its “capacity for mischief.” Observation of Syrian activities in Iraq and Lebanon over the last half decade indicates that this capacity remains undiminished.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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