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Wednesday, October 01, 2008 

Why The Guardian is wrong on Syria

...this time.

Ian Black has been The Guardian's Middle East editor since the legendary Brian Whitaker moved to a different role at the British newspaper. They were big shoes to fill, but Black has done it admirably.

He knows Syria - ok, not as well as Whitaker did - and he treats it with a degree of intelligence most so-called Syria 'experts' don't.

But in his latest piece he is wrong. Very wrong.

The piece is called Tension grows between Syria and Lebanon after bombings. But the 'Lebanon' position is represented solely by Sa'ad Hariri - a leader on the wane, and certainly not representative of Lebanon - maybe part of the Sunni sect.

Hariri accuses Syria of "infiltrating extremists to north Lebanon to carry out terrorist attacks targeting the Lebanese army and civilians".

Lebanese analyst Nadim Shehadi does back up his view - but it certainly isn't prevalent.

There has never been any claim that terrorists in Lebanon have come from Syria - there have been accusations (by Junblatt - although even he has now retracted these) that FUNDING came from Syria. The opposite is true - there is a widespread belief in Syria that the Damascus car-bombers came from northern Lebanon.

Yes, there is tension between Hariri and Bashar - that's not new. But between Lebanon and Syria? That's a bit more of a stretch of the imagination.

Next point...

"A "Takfiri" group - standard terminology for al-Qaida".

Takfiris simply view the world through very narrow lenses. It is true that al-Qaida does too, but that doesn't make them interchangeable. al-Qaida supporters are takfiri, but not vice-versa. A militant may view Shia as apostates, and want to kill them, but not agree with the al-Qaida world-view. It may sound like nitpicking, but conflating the two is dangerous, because next we'll be combining all Muslim militant groups.

"The apparent target was a Syrian intelligence office near the Shia shrine of Sayyida Zeynab, where many Iraqi refugees live."

We've been over this point so many times. It was nowhere near Sayida Zeinab. It was next to Jaramana, and closer to the Christian shrines of Bab Touma than the Shia shrine of Sayida Zeinab. See this.

"Syrian opposition sources have claimed that one of the victims was an intelligence officer."

Farid Ghadry? Oh, please. His "claims' are more like wet-dreams. Reliability factor zero.

"In Beirut, Hariri denounced the deployment of Syrian troops along Lebanon's northern borders. He urged the international community not to allow Syria to intervene in Lebanese affairs under the guise of fighting extremism."

This was well covered a few days ago. There were legitimate fears that the Syrian army was about to re-enter Lebanon. But that all changed when Syria passed tough new laws to fight smuggling, and the real cost of the problem became clear. Oh, and the "10,000 soldiers" Hariri saw at the border were caught on camera as being more like 500.

I have a better title for the article: "Hariri cries wolf - again".

This isn't really on topic, but I couldn't see an email address on the front page.

I'm curious about the Sidi Kadad intelligence building. You mentioned in a previous post ('Speculation') that it houses people who monitor Palestinians in Damascus.

Elsewhere (ie, CNN - ), I've read that Sidi Kadad houses a "special unit responsible for Palestinian security and intelligence matters". Maybe that's the same thing as you wrote, or maybe it means relations with Palestinian groups like Hamas.

Which is it?

Hope you can help.


I meant to include the CNN link:

Hi Matt,

Yes, CNN and my post both refer to the same thing. It basically monitors the activites of Palestinians living in Damascus. The reason it is located there is because it is right next the Jaramana refugee camp which houses one of the largest Palestinian populations in Damascus.

Why do you ask Matt?

I'm just trying to understand a bit better what happened. I also hadn't realised there was a Syrian intelligence office dedicated to monitoring Palestinians. I suppose it makes sense, given what some Palestinian groups have done in the past in Jordan and Lebanon.

I'm curious also about the relationship Syria has with the Palestinians. Obviously there is a relationship with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and some of the Fronts (PFLP, etc) which suggests friendship. But having an intelligence unit dedicated to spying on the Palestinians suggests a less friendly relationship. Does the same unit - ie, the people in Sidi Kadad - do both?

Your map was really helpful regarding the stuff reported about the bomb site being near Shi'ite holy places. How close was the bomb site to the intelligence building?

It was a few hundred meters away, far enough not to cause any damage.

Looking at the intelligence office as a form of spying/suspicion of the Palestinians isn't the right approach.

There is are a number of domestic intelligence organisations, and this one just happens to be the one dedicated to Palestinians.

In Syria there is a parralel infrastructure for Palestinians - a separate Ministry, passport office, intelligence unit, schools, health service etc. That's not because there's segregation (the community is fairly well integrated), it's just because of the huge size of the population makes it necessary.

The Hamas/PFLP angle is barking up the wrong tree - these offices have nothing to do with them, that's far too political.

I see, thank you.

There are so many reports out there its difficult to know exactly what's going on. I've seen one report from a Kuwaiti paper suggesting the car bomb had just left a Syrian intelligence compound and was on its way to Lebanon, for instance.

What you say about this intelligence building housing a domestic intelligence unit for monitoring the Palestinians would imply quite strongly that a car bomb probably wouldn't be built there.

I'm also curious about this intelligence officer reported killed. Virtually every report I've seen sources 'Syrian opposition figures', whatever that means. What do you make of that?

Every report you've seen? Do you mean every report which mentions the "intelligence officer" being killed? That's because this story came from Farid Ghadry - a notorious power-hungry press-release muppet in the States. He used to have close connections with Dick Cheney. No-one's heard of him in Syria. And there are even rumours he's actually Lebanese! He last visited Syria when he was a child. Anyway, I haven't seen this claim coming from anywhere else, except him, so I would dismiss it completely if I were you.

The Kuwaiti paper you talk of, I haven't heard that report. If that paper is As-Siyasseh, they are also very unreliable - they always use un-named sources, and are almost always proven incorrect.

Matt, I've heard two things again and again - first that this is a Palestinian Security Branch (ie intelligence), and secondly that it is a car park for the intelligence. Now, it is possible that it could be both of those things (a car park for Palestinian intel). From what I've seen of it, it doesn't look like a car park (underground or otherwise) - but that's just my judgement.

Yes, it was As-Siyasseh.

Farid Ghadry - I'll remember that name. He sounds a bit like a Syrian (or Lebanese!) Ahmed Chalabi.

Thanks for all this.

So: who do you think did it and what do you think was the target?


Oh, and also, what's your source for the number of troops near north Lebanon being 500?

Source for the 500 troops: http://joshualandis.com/blog/?p=981

As for your other question: don't know, and don't know! Don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise! Look at the bombings in lebanon, Iraq, Turkey etc. We never really knew what happened. I'm guessing the same will be true of this bombing.

If you want me to go with my gut feeling, it's normally the most obvious answer: Al-Qaeda aligned groups (Jund Ash-Sham have claimed responsibility for other attacks in Syria) angry at Syria's secularism/ support for the Lebanese army / peace talks with Israel / closing the Iraq border to militants.

As for the target: mass civilian casualties. The actual location could've been planned for somewhere else and it went off early. Who knows!

Are you going to tell me who you're writing for now? You can email me if you want!!

Interesting, thanks.

I'm not writing for anyone - some of my university courses concern the Middle East and I try to stay up to date. The Syria/Lebanon region is one I haven't paid much attention to so I'm learning what I can.

That said, the more I read the more complex it gets. You're one of the few places I've come across on the 'net that (a) focuses on Syria and (b) have a no B.S. attitude to things. So forgive lots of random vague questions!

Here are some more: How powerful are Jund Ash-Sham? Are they a genuine network of cells and groups, or more of a loose alliance of groups with similar aims who have taken the same name? Do they hold any territory, or have more influence in certain areas?

Thanks again!


Oh, I had a look at Joshua Landis' photo. Unless the entire Syria-Lebanon border is small enough to fit in one photograph, I don't think it proves anything except what it shows, ie, that there are that many soldiers in that (small) area.

I'm not saying there's any truth to the 10,000 number being thrown around, only that the photo itself doesn't prove there aren't more soldiers in that area.

I'm very glad you find the site useful Matt. And thanks for the compliments. There are only a couple of sites dedicated to Syria, written in English.

Jund Ash-Sham, from what I remember are a blowback group from Afghanistan. I.e. they are Syrians, who went to Afghanistan to fight the Russians in the 80s then returned with their militant ideas, to fight the secular Syrian government. I don't think they are like Fateh Al-Islam - i.e. a well organised militant group based in a certain area. I get the feeling from what I've read that it's just an ideology, like Al Qaeda, rather than a group. The clue is in the name - Soliders of Sham (Greater Syria - an idea that implies the unity of the whole Levant).

As for support for extreme militant ideologies - that always was based in the centre of Syria. Especially Hama (and to a much lesser extent Aleppo and Homs).

The photo - good point, maybe just wishful thinking from me?!

Great, thanks. That sounds like what I've read about Jund ash-Sham. But I've seen it as Jund al-Sham elsewhere. Is there a difference?

Wishful thinking? Perhaps. I certainly hope there aren't thousands of soldiers gathered on the border. Surely the smugglers can't be that dangerous.

Though if there were thousands of troops that would be concerning.

Same thing. Jund Al-Sham is pronounced Jund Ash-Sham because the L runs into the first letter of the word when the word begins with SH (and some other letters).

Sasa - Have you sent your objections to Ian Black? You should.

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