Last Thursday witnessed the latest episode in the saga of terrorist attacks in Syria. A car packed with explosives rocked the Al Qazzaz district of Damascus where 55 people died and many more were injured.
The reaction was the usual blame ping pong between the regime of Bashar Al-Assad (the un-elected President of Syria for the last 11 years) and the mainstream Syrian opposition (naturally un-elected) whilst journalists and governments across the world were trying to prove themselves as more innovative and came up with “The Third Player” scenario.
Experts and analysts took inspiration from the fashion industry in which the dogma of “If you cannot think of something new, bring the old stuff back again” is all too common. The word Al-Qaeda, which had quietened down since the death of Osama Bin Laden a year ago, came back into play. Media outlets were waving it around as if a new discovery was suddenly made, without realising that they were falling directly into the trap that the Assad administration has been trying to catch us all in for the last 14 months.
It is widely known that Syria is a secretive country where journalists cannot operate freely and where independent investigations are as common as pay rises to Greek public sector employees. Forensic evidence after the blasts is quickly washed away by fire engines and, needless to say, information publicised by the Syrian State is biased if not laughable.
For analysts to therefore make the conclusion that Al-Qaeda was behind this attack is the equivalent of being given two pieces of a 2000 piece puzzle and successfully identifying what it depicts. Last time I checked, Al-Qaeda had not patented the bomb in a car concept.
Having said all that, there are some clues available in this secretive security state. Let’s look at them one by one.
Clue number 1. Every time the pro-Assad forces raid a town, village, school, house or mosque they tend to leave some very clear messages behind. An infamous and rather disturbing one is “Either Assad or we burn the country down”. I would happily dismiss it had it appeared once or twice but ask the residents of Homs, Idlib, Duma and you will be told that, worryingly, this is a slogan that is echoed widely within regime supporters. Could it therefore be that these blasts are a step-by-step implementation of that rhetoric?
Clue number 2. The highest religious figure in Syria is the Grand Mufti Bader-Al-Deen Hasoon. He is directly appointed by the President and he holds this position for life. Needless to say that the President cannot take risks by appointing this position based on merit. Instead Grand Mufti Hasoon is widely considered to be the dictionary definition of hypocrite and acts as a mouthpiece for the Assad establishment. This regime representative made a speech during a sermon in October 2011 in which he made a very direct statement. He publicly announced that should the country be threatened or attacked, the regime had the capacity to mobilise jihadi suicide bombers everywhere. Somehow we ignore this public threat coming directly by a representative of Assad and instead we try searching for the needle in the haystack.
Clue number 3. If the regime’s own statements are not enough evidence then let’s look at sources outside the borders. The International Community openly pointed the finger at the Assad regime and its henchmen during the Lebanon bombings in which Rafiq Al Hariri, the anti-Syrian Prime Minister, was assassinated. The method? A suicide bomb blast on his motorcade. An international investigation found strong evidence that members of Assad’s long-time partner and beneficiary Hezbollah were behind the assassination. The period between 2004 and 2008 was riddled with bombings and assassinations aimed at strong critics and enemies of the Assad regime in Lebanon, proving vividly that this regime is perfectly capable of orchestrating such acts
Clue number 4. It is not just in Lebanon that the Assad regime has a history of terrorism. In 2009 the Obama administration and the government of Nouri Al-Malki in Iraq repeatedly pointed the finger on Assad and accused him of organising jihadi groups on Syrian soil and exporting them into Iraq in order to carry out terrorist attacks and cause continuous sectarian tension and strife.
The last couple of clues demonstrate that the Assad regime has a history of sponsoring and mobilising jihadi terrorists for its advantage in the region – something which analysts suffering from memory loss seem to not be able to recall. The difference now is that it is using them within the Syrian borders.
We must of course credit the Assad regime for its ability to learn from its own mistakes. When the first bomb explosions rocked Damascus on 23rd December 2011, everyone realised that this was a painful but also a pathetic attempt by the regime to demonstrate that it was fighting terrorists. Everything from injured soldiers with bad acting skills, state journalists littering the scene with shopping bags as well to the fake Muslim Brotherhood website later found to have been set up by members of the intelligence forces showcased that this regime is prepared to go to great lengths in order to spread its propaganda. But since that attack each bombing is becoming more and more sophisticated in its coverage, which is perhaps an excuse for any analysts who fall victim to it.
Yet even when we actually buy the regime’s tale we seem to also be selective on what we hear. If we are going to be naïve enough to buy the rhetoric we should at least take it in its entirety. Syrian state media don’t just propagate the idea that these are terrorist attacks. The full story is that the perpetrators are terrorists “sponsored” by the “imperialist west” and by their Arab Gulf partners. So Al Jazeera, BBC and CNN should not ask Middle East experts or opposition figures about these atrocities. Instead we should be inviting Hillary Clinton and William Hague and ask them if they have a new strategy which dictates that the fastest way to get their countries through the economic downturn is by buying shares on entrepreneurial jihadis looking to become the new Bin Laden.
Rest assured that all these arguments do not mean that terrorists and other types of opportunists do not exist in Syria. After all Al-Qaeda is present in London, Paris, even in Washington, so of course it will have some of its goons in Damascus. The key question is who do they work for. Assad is by no means the loving leader that is fighting terror and the International Community should know better than gobbling his narrative.
It is convenient to blame the killings on imaginative terrorists and it may well relieve the conscience of the world’s politicians as they turn their backs to their responsibility to protect the people of Syria.
The final clue is that maybe, just maybe, the elusive people behind the car bomb attacks are the same ones who mercilessly order and carry out the shelling of entire districts and towns with no regard for the innocent women and children within them.