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Syrians Foil Strike on U.S. Embassy

September 13, 2006|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — 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."

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.

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