DAMASCUS: Suspected al-Qaeda-linked militants tried to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Damascus yesterday. The assailants attempted to storm the compound with automatic weapons and hand grenades, but in a fierce gun battle against Syrian guards, they were repulsed outside the walls.
The brazen, midmorning attack came amid high tension between the United States and Damascus, and could be an indicator of the Syrian regime’s weakening grip on militants, who in recent years have battled Syrian security forces several times.
The three attackers and a Syrian guard were killed in the bombing attempt, in one of Damascus’ most heavily guarded neighborhoods, within which are several foreign Embassies and President Bashar Al-Assad’s office and residence. No Americans were hurt.
“The terrorist attack failed. It failed to achieve the objectives of the criminals,” said Interior Minister General Bassam Abdel Majid, according to Syria’s state-run news agency. The agency described the attackers as takfiri or Islamic extremists, although no group has claimed responsibility.
The rapid response by Syrian guards won rare praise from the United States, which accuses Assad’s government of backing terrorism. Washington’s criticism of Syria’s support for the Hezbullah guerrilla group and Palestinian militants has been mounting.
“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,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. White House spokesman Tony Snow also thanked Syrian officials and called for Damascus to “become an ally and make the choice of fighting against terrorists.”
But Syria responded with sharp criticism of its own, blaming American policies in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories for rising Islamic militancy.
“It is regrettable that U.S. policies in the Middle East have fuelled such 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.” It curtly said that Syria “performed its duties” under the Geneva Conventions to protect the Embassy.
The attack came amid increasing anti-American sentiment across the Middle East after Israel’s 34-day blitz of Hezbullah in Lebanon that ended nearly a month ago. Then there is the turmoil in Iraq that many here blame on the United States. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but suspicion immediately fell on a little-known al-Qaeda offshoot named Jund Al-Sham, which is Arabic for Soldiers of Syria. Syria’s ambassador to the U.S., Imad Moustapha, told the Associated Press that whike it’s still too early to know, but that “it’s logical to conclude” that Jund Al-Sham was responsible. If confirmed, it would be the boldest and most sophisticated attack yet by the group.
HOW EVENTS UNFOLDED
The attackers came in two vehicles, one of them an explosives-laden pick-up truck. The first car pulled up in front of the Embassy entrance and three gunmen burst out. Shouting “Allahu akbar” – “God is great” – they threw hand grenades and fired automatic weapons toward a Syrian guard post and the front gate, sparking a fierce, 15-minute gun battle. At the same time, the pick-up truck – stuffed with pipe bombs rigged to gas canisters – pulled up to another gate on the other side of the triangle-shaped compound. But when the shooting erupted its driver fled on foot without detonating the explosives. He was shot and arrested without.
After the attack, puddles of blood pooled on the sidewalk outside the Embassy, along with the burned out car used by the gunmen. The three gunmen tried to lob their grenades over the Embassy’s 15-foot-high walls. None made it over and all three were killed. One grenade blast peppered the wall with pockmarks. Three Syrian security guards were wounded. In addition, ten civilians and one Chinese diplomat were injured. The diplomat was wounded as he watched the gun battle from the rooftop of the Chinese Embassy, which is located across the street.
The Rawda district where the attack occurred is one of the most heavily guarded parts of the Syrian capital. It houses security installations and the homes of government officials. Hours later, the area remained sealed off, with sharpshooters posted on rooftops. Top security officials at the scene said that the arsenal of the assailants included rocket-propelled grenades. It was not known if any of these were fired during the mid-morning firefight. Children at a school next to the Embassy were rushed to safety after the violence.
Witnesses said two attackers had sought refuge in a nearby building but were pursued and gunned down by security forces. “I heard gunfire at about 9:45am and then one of my employees called me as I was headed to work and told me to return home,” said a local resident. “He saw a car drive up the street toward the Embassy. The vehicle was intercepted by security officers and a gun battle ensued. The occupants of the vehicle threw grenades out the window toward the Embassy and other buildings.”
The U.S. Embassy has about 40 staffers but no ambassador. The United States withdrew its ambassador several days after the Feb 14, 2005, assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in a Beirut car bomb – an attack that his supporters blame on Syria. Damascus has denied any role, but the attack further soured U.S.-Syrian ties. The attack also raised the question of how strong militant groups have grown in Syria – where the highly secretive government rarely releases information on security issues, making an assessment of the terror threat difficult to make.
Though the United States accuses Syria of supporting terrorism, Sunni Muslim extremists like al-Qaeda fiercely despise Assad’s regime because of its secular ideology and because his father, Hafez Assad, led a crackdown on Muslim fundamentalists that killed thousands in the city of Hama in 1982. They also reject rule by Assad because he belongs to Islam’s Shiite Alawite sect . Bashar Assad has warned of the increasing fundamentalist threat to his country, saying that al-Qaeda militants are taking refuge in neighboring Lebanon.
But opponents of his regime claim he is hyping the threat to win support with the United States, defuse international pressure and provide a pretext for Syrian meddling in Lebanon. Syrian security forces have battled with gunmen believed to belong to Jund Al-Sham several times over the past two years.
In June, anti-terrorism police fought militants near the Syrian Defense Ministry in central Damascus, in a clash that killed five people and wounded four. In 2004, four people were killed in a gunfight between police and a team of militants believed to plotting to bomb the Canadian Embassy. But Tuesday’s attack suggested a new boldness in Jund Al-Sham, which was established in Afghanistan by Syrians, Palestinians and Jordanians with links to Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the slain leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Syria is a major crossroads into Iraq for insurgents from around the Arab world – including Syria and Lebanon. In the face of American pressure, Damascus insists it is doing all it can to stop the infiltration, but its long desert border is too difficult to seal.