Syrian media rally behind terrorism theory

A car bomb on September 27 killed 17 in Damascus, and unlike two other recent assassinations, the Syrian media had a unified narrative of the incident, describing the attack as the work of a terrorist – a foreigner. MENASSAT talked to media analyst Mazen Darwish about the coverage of the incident.
Syria car bomb
The view from a damaged car near the September 27 bombing in the Syrian capital Damascus. © Hussein Malla AP

DAMASCUS, October 2, 2008 (MENASSAT) – The remotely control car bomb went off at 8.45 last Saturday morning on Mohallaq Street in South Damascus. It was a crowded area close to a religious shrine, and it was rush hour.

Unlike two previous assassinations this year, which targeted individuals, this explosion killed 17 civilians, wounded dozens and carried a unified media message: it was an act of terrorism!

Was this a "safe" case of violence against the state that gave Syrian reporters carte blanche to theorize about who was responsible, in contrast to the August assassination of Mohammad Sleiman, a top military adviser to President Bashar Al-Assad, and six months after the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah's operations chief last February?

Eager to assign blame

Mazen Darwish, director of Syrian Centre of Media and Freedom of Expression, seems to think so. According to Darwish, Syrian media went out of their way to support the terrorist attack theory.

The daily Tishreen described the complete specifications of the vehicle used in the bomb, sensitive information unobtainable in the other two assassinations.

"The car is a GMC suburban, scarlet color with golden lines on the side, plate number 83115 engine number JKJK26U3X2185882 and it entered the country on September 26 through a border crossing from a neighboring Arab country,” Tishreen wrote, although the paper didn't specify which country.

Subsequent investigation leaked to the media pointed to a single suicide bomber, and reports indicate DNA tests were underway to positively identify the assailant.

Days later, it was still unclear whether the attack had hit its intended target. Syrian authorities had yet to make public their official stance on the matter, but a direct explosion against the state was highly unlikely because there were no state facilities in the area.

Syrian interior minister General Bassam Abdelmajeed said on Syrian television, "Of course this is a terrorist attack, in a crowded area. It's a cowardly attack."

Syrian television filmed the site of the explosion, but according to media analysts they made sure the Palestine branch of the Syrian military intelligence did not appear in the footage in order to avoid enforcing rumors about the death in the attack of the deputy director of the Palestine branch, General Abdel Karim Abbas along with his son Ahmad.

Who was targeted?

Fueling the theory that Abbas was the target for the attack was the fact that the general had previously given testimony to the International Tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

But the official narrative concentrates exclusively on the terrorism theme.

Earlier this month, Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad had expressed his concern about "radical forces" being supported from abroad that had taken up residence in the Lebanon’s northern port city, Tripoli. He made several allusions to the danger of radical Islamists using Tripoli as their base.

Following the car bomb that killed seven in Tripoli on September 29, two days after the Damascus bombing, a fresh round of accusations volleyed back and forth between Lebanese and Syrian leaders.

MENASSAT turned to Mazen Darwish, director of the Syrian Centre of Media and Freedom of Expression, to ask about the difference between the recent media coverage when comparing the September 27 car bomb to other attacks, like Mughniyeh's assassination.


MENASSAT: Where does this paradox in Syrian media coverage come from?

MAZEN DARWISH: "The Syrian government is the only source of information in Syria. Everyone has to repeat the official story. The best one can do is to use analysis and conclusions. This is why we see a unified story about the car bomb in Syrian media."

MENASSAT: Do you believe the official story yourself?

MAZEN DARWISH: "It is in fact a terrorist attack. Any attack on civilians is condemnable. This is the first with such high number of casualties. In Mughniyeh's case, or in Mohammad Sleiman's assassination, the targets were obvious. Today, the shock is in the number of casualties and the targeted area. True, there is a security branch in the general area but the area itself is not sensitive. The past attacks would have been sound from a military point of view, but the attack on September 29 is not. This is why we see this popular emotional reaction."

MENASSAT: Why do you think the Syrian government was quick to respond with its story while in the past, they always took their time?

"For three reasons: first, because of the high number of casualties the government had to act fast. Second, assassinations are sensitive from a security point of view; there seems to be no such dimension to this attack. Third, to highlight the danger from beyond the borders, a constant reminder of the eminent danger posed from outside. I see the danger coming from inside the country as well, not only from beyond the borders."

MENASSAT: Where is the media in all this? And why the discretion about the borders the car allegedly came through?

MAZEN DARWISH: "As journalists in Syria, we have to stick to the official story, and we apply self-censorship that is harder than government censorship. And we all agree that terrorism as well as radical ideologies exists here. But for example, eyewitnesses told me the car they saw was a local yellow car. In other words: a Syrian taxi. You have those who went to Iraq, and with the restraints now, they are coming back. Those elements are for sure not retiring. As I said, the margin for analysis is narrow, and everyone knows now that what we write, we pay preciously for."

(Contributions from Saseen Kawzally and Rita Barotta in Beirut, and Mehyieddine Isso in Syria.)

The following is a list of assassinations and explosions in Syria over the last 5 years:

  • April 27, 2004. An explosion in the Mazze district in Damascus, which hosts western embassies and official residencies, followed by a shootout between police and attackers which killed five people according to Syrian authorities: three attackers, a policeman, and a female bystander. The "Martyre Adim Kilani Group” claimed responsibility for the attack.

  • September 26, 2004. A car bomb kills a Hamas leader and injures three civilians in the Zahra neighborhood south of Damascus. Both Syria and Hamas blamed Israel.

  • September 12, 2006. Four armed men attempt to detonate a car bomb in front of the American embassy in Damascus. The attackers, one Syrian anti-terrorism policeman and a civilian were killed in the attack.

  • September 28, 2007. A Syrian cleric, Sheikh Mahmoud Abu Qa'qa', known to recruit fighters to go to Iraq to fight the American military is shot following Friday prayer in Aleppo.

  • February 12, 2008. Top commander of Hezbollah military operations Imad Mughniyeh is assassinated with a car bomb in Damascus. Mughniyeh was wanted by Interpol and the United States for his involvement in terrorist attacks and kidnapping. Israel was accused but denied responsibility.

  • August 1, 2008. Brigadier General Mohammad Suleiman is assassinated in the port city of Tartous. Suleiman was a top aid of President Assad and in charge of the Syrian Centre for Scientific Studies and Research, a military outfit.