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Syrians Foil Strike on U.S. Embassy

Times Staff Writer

Four suspected Islamic militants hurled hand grenades and sprayed machine-gun fire in an attempt to storm the American Embassy in Damascus on Tuesday, but were gunned down by Syrian forces.

The brazen morning attack in the Syrian capital seemed to briefly ease tensions between Washington and Damascus, as U.S. officials thanked Syria for defending the embassy. But the attack also raised questions about President Bashar Assad’s grip on security, and his regime’s relationship with extremist groups.

“We appreciate the response of the Syrian security forces to help secure our territory,” said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking at an appearance in Stellarton, Canada. “I do think that the Syrians reacted to this attack in a way that helped to secure our people, and we very much appreciate that.”

Other Bush administration officials, however, referred to long-standing tensions with Syria, which remains on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

“The Syrian police forces did their job, and they were professional about it,” said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. “Now, the next step is for Syria to play a constructive role in the war on terror. Stop harboring terrorist groups, stop being an agent in fomenting terror, and work with us to fight against terror, as Libya has done. That’s the next step for Syria.”

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The Syrian government blamed the bungled attack on a little-known hard-line Sunni militant group that calls itself Jund al Sham, or Soldiers of the Levant, allegedly linked to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

“It’s clearly a terrorist operation,” said Interior Minister Gen. Bassam Abdel Majeed.

Three of the militants were killed and a fourth was captured in the morning shootout, which also killed a Syrian security officer and wounded 11 bystanders. Timed explosives rigged to a stolen van at the embassy gate failed to go off and were detonated later by Syrian anti-terrorism agents, the interior minister told state television.

Political analyst Ayman Abdel Nour said he had just climbed out of his car to go see about a visa when a car pulled over outside the embassy and four gunmen leapt out. At first, Nour said, he was confused.

“I thought they were filming a scene for something, because it was the middle of the day, in the middle of the most secure area in Damascus,” he said. “Then one of them fell down near me and I saw the blood. I realized it was serious, so I ran and hid.”

Nour said he took shelter in a neighboring embassy. The shooting lasted for about 15 minutes, slowing gradually to single bursts of fire. The gunmen pitched hand grenades over the embassy walls, cracking two windows, he said.

None of the embassy staff was hurt in the attack. The 11 bystanders wounded included repairmen from the Syrian Telecommunication Establishment, an Iraqi couple and a Chinese diplomat who was standing on a nearby rooftop.

Perched behind high walls on a heavily fortified hillside, the U.S. Embassy has been at the heart of a stony diplomatic relationship in recent years. The American ambassador withdrew from the Damascus embassy after the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut. A United Nations report accused Syrian intelligence of complicity in the assassination, a charge Syria denies.

The United States also has accused Damascus of letting jihadist fighters slip across its borders to fight in Iraq, as well as tampering in Lebanese affairs and propping up anti-Israel fighters in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

In recent weeks, the United States and Israel accused Damascus of funneling weapons to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, where battles between Israel and Shiite Muslim militants raged for 34 days in July and August.

As relations soured between Washington and Damascus in recent years, the anti-American sentiment that has flared in the Middle East since the war in Iraq also took hold in Syria.

But the U.S. is not the sole target of Islamists: The groups have also waged a long-running blood feud with secular Syria.

The government is dominated by members of the Allawite sect, a Shiite offshoot rejected by hard-line Sunnis. In the 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to oppose the regime were crushed bloodily by Assad’s father, President Hafez Assad. To this day, membership in the Sunni militant group is punishable by death.

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Syrian government has struggled to maintain the rigorous street control that once made the Assad regime famous. Syrian troops have repeatedly battled with shadowy gunmen. Tuesday’s attack was the third to strike the capital in three years; all were easily repelled by security services.

The attacks have raised speculation about whether Bashar Assad is capable of keeping the country calm.

Some analysts have wondered whether some members of the Syrian government might have worked out a detente of sorts with the more serious jihadi forces, such as those operating in Iraq.

Still others have accused the government of colluding in staged attacks in a bid to draw sympathy from the West.

After each attack, Syrian officials have been quick to remind reporters that Damascus, too, is a target for terrorists.

“The Syrian government is a secular one, and the Baath Party itself is secular, so it’s considered by Al Qaeda and others as a pro-Western regime,” said a Syrian official who spoke by phone on condition of anonymity. “So Syria is attacked by those groups, and meanwhile the USA is accusing Syria of belonging to the same groups. Both sides are greatly mistaken.”

Syrian officials also criticized U.S. policy in the region.

“It is regrettable that U.S. policies in the Middle East have fueled extremism, terrorism and anti-U.S. sentiment,” the Syrian Embassy in Washington said in a statement. “The U.S. should ... start looking at the root causes of terrorism and broker a comprehensive peace in the Middle East.”

But questions linger: Why have militants never struck Syria with the force and skill brought to bear against Arab neighbors such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia? Is Syria given a pass by armed groups because of Assad’s reputation as an anti-American figure?

“The speculation has been that the Assad regime has put people up to this,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma who spent last year living in Damascus. “Are they in league? Have they cut a deal?”

One U.S. counter-terrorism official said it was too soon to tell who was responsible for Tuesday’s attack, but said he was not surprised that Syria blamed Jund al Sham.

“Other violent incidents have occurred in Syria and the government has pointed to the group, but there is not a lot known about it,” said the official, whose agency does not permit him to discuss terrorism matters on the record.

The official and others, however, said it was also possible that the perpetrators might have been local men with political grievances.

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megan.stack@latimes.com

Times staff writers Josh Meyer and Paul Richter in Washington and Caesar Ahmed in Cairo contributed to this report.


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