Embassy attack puts Syria on alert
Attempted takeover of US Embassy in Damascus highlights Syria's own multiple enemies.
CAIRO AND DAMASCUS, SYRIA — An attack in Damascus on Tuesday morning that is being described by Syrian officials as an attempt to take over the US Embassy by "Islamist terrorists" helps to emphasize that while there is confrontation between US and Syria both countries are targets of Islamist militants.
Witnesses described a coordinated attack by a group of militants that involved gunfire, car bombs, and grenades and said some of the attackers shouted "God is great" as they engaged Syrian guards outside the compound a little after 10 a.m. local time.
"The US government is grateful for the assistance the Syrians provided," White House press secretary Tony Snow said.
Three militants and one Syrian guard were killed in the attack, with a fourth wounded militant taken into custody. No American citizens were hurt in the assault, though a Syrian guard employed by the embassy was wounded but in stable condition, according to a brief statement by the embassy. A Syrian government guard was in serious condition, according to the official SANA news agency.
While this was first and foremost an attack on the US, it is also a major embarrassment for the government in Damascus, a secular authoritarian regime that is viewed by Al Qaeda and its allies as run by apostates.
Local television showed footage of a van that appeared to be loaded with homemade bombs and propane canisters at the scene. The Associated Press quoted witnesses as saying a smaller car bomb did explode.
The US State Department considers Syria to be a supporter of terrorism, largely because of its ties to Hizbullah, the militant Shiite group in Lebanon, and the US government has worked to isolate Syria in recent years. The US ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, was recalled in February 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, an attack later blamed on Syria by a United Nations investigation.
But the country has also been fighting its own war on terrorism.
The Syrian ambassador to the US, Imad Mustafa, alleged on CNN that the attackers were from Tanzim Jund al-Sham, a militant group that shares much of Al Qaeda's ideology.
In recent months, a number of former US officials have been quietly urging that the US reach out to the Damascus regime, saying it might be possible to drive a wedge between the secular Bashar al-Assad, a member of the country's minority Alawite sect, and his theocratic allies Iran and Hizbullah.
However, the Bush administration has continued to insist that the Assad regime will have to abandon support for Hizbullah before it's viewed as a possible partner for peace.
Mr. Snow said US gratitude "does not mean they are an ally. We are hoping they will become an ally and make the choice of fighting against terrorists."
Damascus has fought Islamist militants off and on for decades, and famously in a crackdown following an assassination attempt against former President Hafiz al-Assad in 1982, that killed approximately 10,000 residents of the town of Hama, then, as now, a bastion for Sunni Islamist thought.
Islamist militancy has been on the rise inside Syria in the past few years, in part fueled by the flow of jihadis back and forth across its border with Iraq. Last June, four gunmen and a Syrian security agent were killed after an attack outside of Syria's state-run television station.
June 9, Syrian forces engaged in a three-hour firefight in southern Damascus at the house of a shopkeeper they alleged was a Tanzim Jund al-Sham cell leader and said they found a cache of weapons and jihadi propaganda there.
April 27, 2004, Syrian forces foiled what they said was an Islamist car-bomb attack in the same diplomatic quarter of Damascus.
The former United Nations' mission in the area was set on fire by rocket-propelled grenades in that assault. Syrian officials later said the ultimate target of the attack was the Canadian Embassy, which was to have been hit by a car bomb that failed to detonate.
Ayman Abdul Nour, who runs All4Syria, an online news service, says many Syrians are worried about what they see as the spread of Salafi ideology – an intolerant brand of Sunni Islam – inside the country.
"We start asking questions about these fanatic Muslim groups moving freely around the country and the region," he says. It raises "a lot of question about how we can secure our country and about how we can secure our future."