By Sami Moubayed,
Damascus: In a rare but deadly attack, a car bomb exploded on Saturday, near a Shiite shrine in southern Damascus, killing 17 people and wounding 14 others, state media said.
Saturday's blast occurred during the morning rush-hour in the teeming neighbourhood of Sayeda Zeinab, the state-run Sana news agency said.
The district is popular among Shiite pilgrims from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq who pray at the tomb of Zeinab. "This is a cowardly terrorist attack," Syrian Interior Minister Bassam Abdul Majid told Gulf News.
The blast, which contained 200kg of explosives, killed 17 civilians.
Syria, usually known for its iron-fisted security, has witnessed some recent cracks in its apparatus, especially after the car bomb assassination of Emad Moughniya, military commander of the Lebanese group Hezbollah, in February.
Speculation was ripe in Arab and international media, some claiming that it targeted a nearby intelligence complex, others claiming it was aimed at the Shiite shrine.
While the site was immediately sealed off, Gulf News spoke with people near the scene.
"I saw a thick cloud of smoke rising into the air, followed by many ambulance cars rushing towards the scene," Ziad, a local cabdriver, explained.
"We haven't seen anything like this since the days of the Muslim Brotherhood," he added, in reference to militant attacks by the radical group in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Another observer, who declined to give his name, had a different theory.
"This is either Israel, or a certain Arab country that has had nothing but scorn for Syria since 2005. I don't want to mention names; everybody knows who I am taking about," he said.
Mustafa Al Sayyed, a journalist and analyst, said, "the explosion in Damascus was terrorism par excellence, because it targeted innocent civilians. I blame Israel, given all the terrorist attacks and assassinations we witnessed in Syria over the last year, which I believe, were conducted by the Mossad."
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were first to condemn the bombing. Medvedev described it as a "cruel and inhumane crime", while Sarkozy said it was, "barbarian and blind" expressing "solidarity with Syria in its fight against terrorism."
Attack: Snap analysis
The car bomb exploded less than 100 metres away from a major security base on a highway leading to Damascus's international airport, raising speculation that the base was the attackers' target. If confirmed, it would be the most brazen attack on Syrian security forces for several years.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack but the interior minister's remarks indicated that Syrian investigators suspect hardliners were involved.
The attack, in which a suicide bomber has not been ruled out, was reminiscent of attacks by the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s.
The attack is the latest blow to Syrian security as it follows the assassination of the military commander of Lebanon's Hezbollah in Damascus and a senior military aide to President Bashar Al Assad in northern Syria earlier this year. It comes also a year after Israeli warplanes destroyed what was a suspected nuclear facility deep in Syrian territories.
The Syrian authorities have for long boasted that Syria was a haven of stability in a troubled area, with volatile Iraq, Lebanon and Israel on its borders. A rise in attacks is sure to change all that and make officials nervous over long-term stability in the country.
Syrian authorities are expected to crack down on hardliners and other dissident groups. Syria's ties with militants including Al Qaida-linked groups is complex and complicated. The United States and other countries have long accused Damascus of allowing Al Qaida to use its territory to transfer fighters to Iraq and even Lebanon - charges Syria denies. But Damascus has a track record of cracking down on Syrian hardliners since the 1970s. Over the past two years its forces have killed several militants and arrested hundreds.
The attack is unlikely to change Syrian policies, especially in pursuing indirect peace talks with Israel in Turkey and diplomatic detente with Europe after years of international isolation. But it might harden Syria's position on Lebanon and what it sees as the rise of militancy in the north of its smaller neighbour.