BEIRUT, LEBANON — When suspected Islamic militants set off a bomb in the heart of Damascus Tuesday night and fought with Syrian security forces, it demonstrated that no Arab country can consider itself immune from terrorism.
The attack, the first of its kind in Damascus for over two decades, came days after Jordanian officials announced they had foiled a potentially devastating chemical-bomb plot in Amman. It also came a week after a suicide car bomb destroyed a Saudi security forces building in Riyadh, killing four people and wounding 150 others.
"This is a manifestation of a war led by these militants under a jihad that is not only outward but inward. It's a holy struggle not only against the United States and other allied countries but also against Arab regimes," says Nizar Hamzeh, professor of politics at the American University of Beirut.
Even Syria's traditionally staunch opposition to Israel is not enough to safeguard it from attacks by Islamic militants, he adds.
The attack in the Mezze suburb of Damascus, home to several embassies and international agencies, appeared to be amateurish.
The gang was spotted placing explosives beneath a car parked outside a building that once housed offices for the United Nations. The blast set the empty building alight, and a gun battle with Syrian security forces ensued. The Interior Ministry said four people were killed in the fighting: two militants, a policeman, and a bystander. Two militants were detained; one led police to a cache containing rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons, gas cylinders, and bags of yellow powder.
Ahmad al-Haj Ali, an adviser to the Syrian information minister, told the Arabic Al Jazeera television channel that the attackers "wanted to give the impression that there is no area or place safe from these acts, particularly as Syria has been enjoying a state of stability."
"They wanted also to give the impression that US or other targets can be found anywhere," he said.
The Damascus attack is an unwelcome addition to Syria's list of headaches. It is under intense pressure from the US to stop supporting militant anti-Israel groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah, to abandon its alleged weapons of mass destruction program, and to cooperate over Iraq.
Damascus is also having to cope with the aftermath of some of the worst internal unrest in years after the marginalized Kurdish population rioted last month. More generally, many Syrians are increasingly critical over the slow pace of promised reforms.
The identity of the militants was not immediately clear, although many analysts judged them to be Islamists rather than Kurds.
"I don't think at all it was Kurds," says one Syrian analyst. "If it had been Kurds they would have attacked a government building."
Syria's Baathist government has no sympathy for the radical brand of Islam practiced by Osama bin Laden. Washington has praised Damascus in the past for sharing intelligence on Islamic militants, but the US blames Syria for not doing enough to prevent militants from infiltrating Iraq. Syria says it is safeguarding the 400-mile desert border within its means, but is unable to stop everyone from crossing.
Diplomatic sources in Damascus say that Syria remains the preferred transit point for militants wishing to join the insurgency in Iraq. They say militants have been helped across the border by "facilitators," possibly tribal smugglers well acquainted with the numerous desert trails running across the frontier.
"There are definitely some elements from outside coming into Syria to move into Iraq. There are facilitators. Some are Islamists, some have other agendas," one diplomat says.