By Rami G. Khouri
The two consecutive massive explosions outside a Syrian security building on Thursday morning marked another awful milestone in the 14-month-old conflict in Syria. They also reflected a sad business-as-usual pattern of developments across the entire Arab world.
The bombings, which killed over 55 people and wounded hundreds, are one more indicator of the worsening nature of the Syrian conflict, which continues to become more polarized, sectarian and violent. The relatively speedy evolution of the conflict from a series of peaceful demonstrations in provincial cities to large-scale violence and demonstrations in Aleppo and Damascus is an ominous sign, but its full significance is not clear. It is intriguing that these bombings, and others before them in Aleppo and Damascus, are taking place in the cities that had long been seen as somewhat outside the nationwide rebellion against the regime of President Bashar Assad and his family.
This raises the usual accusations that only the regime itself could have organized the explosions, because security measures are too strong in these cities for anyone other than the regime to pull off such a feat.
The other main candidate for organizing bombing is usually unnamed Salafist movements that are close to or inspired by Al-Qaeda, or even Al-Qaeda itself operating from Iraq. The mainstream opposition inside and outside Syria almost certainly did not carry out these bombings, given the largely peaceful nature of their actions to date. Perhaps some opposition groups who are disenchanted with the slow pace of progress in toppling the regime have broken away to form more militant organizations using urban bombings as a main tactic.
It is also impossible to rule out that these bombings are the work of foreign countries that want to bring down the Assad regime and are now sub-contracting such attacks to criminal groups. The fact that so many possible parties are credible culprits is one of the sad aspects of this phenomenon. It is also a grim comment on the condition of modern Arab political orders.
This is the double tragedy of this attack, beyond the deaths of innocent civilians and the promise of much more in the months ahead. Syria and Damascus are now part of a long list of Arab countries whose capital cities in recent decades have appeared on our television screens ravaged by the devastation of urban warfare.
One after another since the 1980s, Arab capitals have become battlefields where governments, oppositions, and foreign antagonists go after each other using all available weapons. Beirut, Amman, Sanaa, Kuwait, Baghdad, Algiers, Mogadishu, Jerusalem, Riyadh, Cairo, Tripoli, Casablanca, Darfur and other cities and regions of the Arab world have each taken their turn to reaffirm the various underlying causes of instability, political volatility and violence that have turned them into battlefields. If there is a common image that most Arab countries have projected at one time or another, with only a few exceptions, it is the bombed-out building or street with plumes of black smoke rising over a city, amid dead bodies and mangled cars, and flows of escaping refugees seeking safety in another place.
This common legacy of political violence across the entire Middle East should be a significant clue about the underlying problems and weaknesses of the different Arab countries. We could pick other such region-wide phenomena that provide equally relevant clues, such as the involvement of foreign troops in these countries, the large-scale emigration of educated young people, or the growth of militant and sometimes criminal Salafist groups that engage in terrorism.
Sinister people abroad sometimes explain these phenomena as a consequence of violence-prone Arab or Islamic culture, or some other such idiotic explanations. A more reasonable reading of the bombings in Damascus and other such political violence in Arab capitals is that they reflect deep distortions in the exercise of power by violent, security- and family-based regimes, leading to massive citizen discontent and regime insecurity that ultimately manifest themselves in such urban warfare. The series of uprisings that continues to roll across the region can be understood in part as the latest and most significant expression of the sentiments of the one key group of aggrieved people that has largely been ignored in the modern saga of Arab state-building: the citizenry.
The countries that have been subjected to citizen revolts will need time to develop new governance systems that give their citizens a sense of fairness and equal opportunity in public life that has largely been lacking in recent decades. In the absence of orderly democratic transition based on self-determination, bombed and burning cities – now common in Syria – have become the inevitable way-station on the road from deviant criminal repression to integrity and rights in the business of Arab national governance.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.