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Syrian bombing: A jihadi attack?

The weekend bombing that killed at least 17 people was the worst of its kind since Syria's battle with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s and 80s.

By Correspondent / September 29, 2008

Cycle of violence: A boy cleaned up his home that was damaged in Saturday's bombing, the latest in a growing number of attacks in Syria.

Hussein Malla/AP


Beirut, Lebanon

As the Syrian authorities begin investigating a bomb attack that killed 17 people in Damascus Saturday, initial suspicion points to Islamist militants, either home-grown or foreign.

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A car bomb, packed with an estimated 440 pounds of explosives, blew up close to a building reportedly housing the Palestine Branch of Syrian military intelligence. It was the worst of its kind since the violent confrontation between the Syrian regime and Islamist militants of the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 80s.

There was no claim of responsibility, and in Syria, one of the most opaque countries in the Middle East, there are plenty of potential perpetrators.

"As usual in the Middle East, there are three or four credible culprits and this is what is so frustrating. The region is chronically and increasingly violent," says Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Center for Lebanon, a think tank. "Who knows who did it, but in a way it's surprising that no one has tried to do this stuff before because so many people are angry with Syria."

The London-based Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper claimed Sunday that a brigadier general who was a senior Syrian intelligence officer was among the 17 people killed in the explosion. While the Syrian authorities have said only civilians were killed in the attack, the general's death, if true, could indicate that the bombing was a targeted assassination rather than a random mass-casualty attack.

Still, initial speculation suggests that those responsible for the bomb attack were Sunni jihadists reacting to a possible crackdown by the Syrian authorities.

The Syrian regime survives through coercion, guile, and force and has enjoyed considerably more stability than its neighbors in the past quarter century. But since 2004, there has been a spate of attacks and clashes between the Syrian security forces and suspected Al Qaeda-style militants.

Some analysts say the clashes, which included an attack on the US embassy in Damascus two years ago, were contrived by the state to win sympathy from the West. Others believe that Syria faces a genuine threat from the region's jihadists who resent the regime's domination by the Alawites (an off-shoot of Shiite Islam that Islamic hard-liners regard as heretical), abhor Syria's ties with Shiite Iran, and oppose Damascus's indirect peace talks with Israel.

On top of the potential jihadist threat, Syria has been rocked by mysterious assassinations and security breaches this year.