A bomb goes off in the sun before noon, you get a text message to check in, but traffic keeps moving in the central neighborhoods in Damascus. I was walking to buy, of all things, litter and food for a new cat when I received a vague message from the embassy to check in. Knowing something had happened, I ducked into an internet cafe where I saw the news: a car bombing south of the city, towards the airport, near the popular Sayed Zeinab shrine, a beacon for Shia pilgrims and a neighborhood home to maybe a half million Iraqi refugees. There is disconnect, to be sure, whether in the Old City or in the upscale shopping area of Shaalen, popular with foreigners, like Cairo’s Zamalek or Dokki. The state television coverage offers a glimpse into a scene on a main road you passed on your way from the airport less than two week before. The next day, in small groceries, the requisite satellite television carries a goverment minister, being interviewd on a set with fake plants, explaining that the perpetrators were foreigners.
Joshua Landis at Syria Comment writes: “A friend who recently opened up a hotel in a renovated Ottoman house in the old city of Damascus called and said that he had lost $40,000 worth of business overnight due to the car bomb. All his October reservations have cancelled.”
In general, Syria has been one of the safest major Middle Eastern capitals. The US State Department has maintained a travel advisory against Syria, but that is largely for political reasons. Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Israel-Palestine, Saudi Arabia, etc. are much more dangerous than Syria and have suffered more al-Qaida attacks and dead Americans than Syria. It should be said that no American has been killed by terrorists in Syria throughout the entire history of the country. At least I don’t know of one. Perhaps a Syria Comment reader will correct me?
The fear sparked by this attack is that terrorism has returned to Syria. During the late 1970s and early 1980s Syria experienced a steady and violent period of terrorist strikes, carried out by the radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
There have been a number of political assassinations and several failed terrorist attacks in the last decade, but extremist Sunni groups have not been successful in Syria. Some of the assassinations and explosions are commonly attributed to Israel. See al-Jazeera’s Timeline: Syria attacks. In this group we can place the most recent Mughniya assassination, the authorship of which is disputed, the “nuclear” facility bombing in Sept 2007, the September 2004 car bombing in southern Damascus that killed an official of the Palestinian Hamas movement and three passers-by.
The al-Qaida type explosions or attacks are:
- April 2004:Three assailants and empty UN building in Mezzeh. Apoliceman and a woman passer-by die in the gun battle. The government blames al-Qaeda, but the attack is claimed by a group which says it wants to avenge the government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982.
- September 2006: The US embassy was attacked by three armed men, which was botched. All three were killed and a member of the Syrian security forces was killed and 14 people wounded in a failed attempt to set off a car bomb.
- There have also been a number of round-ups and gun battles between security forces and “al-Qaida” types, but not successful extremist opperations that have done much damage.
According to the official SANA news agency, the blast occurred on the Mahlaq road in southern Damascus in an area crowded with civilian passers-by. The site was near the Sayeda Zeinab neighborhood, which is popular with Shiite pilgrims from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq. No group has yet taken responsibility for the bombing. It may have been an Iraqi Sunni group targetting Shiites or a home-grown Syrian group. We don’t know.