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.
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.
"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.
They include the February car-bomb killing of Imad Mughniyah, top military commander of Lebanon's militant Shiite Hezbollah, and the assassination of a leading Syrian general and adviser to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad who had alleged links to Hezbollah.
"We have extremists in Iraq and in Lebanon. Any one of them can be suspects," in the Damascus bombing, says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst. "If an intelligence war has been waged by any of the usual suspects against Syria, we are in for difficult times since security is a red-line in Syria."
Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United States has repeatedly accused Syria of facilitating the entry of foreign Arab militants into neighboring Iraq and demanded Damascus tighten border security. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, however, acknowledged to the London-based Al-Hayat daily Friday that the flow of militants entering Iraq from Syria has decreased. She pinned the downturn on US and Iraqi government actions inside Iraq, rather than assistance by Syria.
President Assad last month warned of violence from jihadist militants in northern Lebanon and called on the Lebanese Army to mount a crackdown. Since May, Sunni militants in northern Lebanon have clashed with the small Alawite community, which has close links to the Syrian regime. A reconciliation agreement reached earlier this month has quelled fighting for now, but north Lebanon remains tense.
Two weeks ago, Syria deployed several thousand special forces troops along Lebanon's northern border, an unusual development that sparked speculation in Beirut that Damascus was contemplating a military incursion into its neighbor. Syria said that the deployment was nothing more than an antismuggling drive.
But Syria's state-run Al-Thawra newspaper Sunday suggested that the perpetrators of the Damascus bomb attack had come from another country.
"Syrian security is solid, but the region is throbbing with terrorists," it reported. "We need to protect our frontiers to prevent infiltration by terrorists, explosions, and acts of sabotage."
Lebanon's northern border is the favored conduit for Sunni jihadists crossing between Lebanon and Syria. North Lebanon lies close to Syria's "Sunni belt," once hotbeds of support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
"If Syria is cracking down on jihadis along the Iraq border and along the Lebanon border, then it would not be surprising if the jihadis strike back," says Andrew Tabler, editor of Syria Today magazine.