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On Its Own Soil

May 04, 1986

On a street in Damascus last week, at the site of a car bomb explosion in March that may have killed or wounded as many as 170 people, Syrian authorities hanged a man they identified as a Lebanese in the employ of Iraq's intelligence services. The Syrians say the Lebanese had confessed to his part in the bombing, which seems to have been the first in a series of recent terrorist attacks in the country. The number of casualties from those attacks isn't known. Syria has said little about them, and the public hanging seems to have been the first official acknowledgement that terrorist incidents have taken place.

Other Arab sources indicate that in recent weeks nine buses were blown up on Syrian highways. At least one of them apparently was carrying cadets from a military academy. An explosion is also reported to have occurred on a train traveling between Aleppo and Latakia. A newspaper in the Persian Gulf claims that other bomb plots have recently been foiled.

Syria is a tightly controlled country, with a press that is firmly in government hands and a secret police system that is considered both pervasive and generally efficient. But some things, like explosions and casualties that occur in full public view, can't be completely suppressed. Terrorism to some degree has been occurring within Syria, not the terrorism that the government regularly uses to cow its citizens, but terrorism presumably aimed at demonstrating the vulnerability of the regime.

Arab sources, quoting Syrian officials, say that Iraq and Israel are behind this terrorism. External involvement--not necessarily limited to Iraq or Israel--obviously can't be ruled out. But it also clearly suits President Hafez Assad's purposes to finger his longtime foreign enemies as the source of this new problem. By doing so he is able to avoid acknowledging that a domestic opposition not only exists but has become violently more active.

An opposition of course exists in a country where a small religious group, the Alawites, holds nearly all the reins of power at the expense of the other 85% of the population. Assad's systematic program of persecution and murder has weakened the opposition, but not succeeded in destroying it. Meanwhile, an economy that has steadily deteriorated under official mismanagement and corruption has added to domestic discontent.

Syria has been quite clever in the past at obscuring its own direct involvement in terrorism beyond its borders. Now, to a degree that has yet to become clear, it faces its own terrorism problem. It would be foolish to expect that a few bombs and the indiscriminate casualties they cause will topple the Assad regime, or improve the quality of life for Syrian citizens. But if nothing else what has been happening in Syria is a reminder that when terrorism is let loose, anyone can become its victim.

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