BEIRUT — A Syrian rebel suicide bomber detonated a car full of explosives in front of a key government military intelligence office in the southern Syrian city of Sweida on Wednesday, killing a commander and about seven other officials working for Air Force Military Intelligence – one of the Assad regime’s most critical institutions.
It was the latest of a rising trend of suicide assaults in Syria’s two-and-a-half-year long civil war. At least 90 such attacks have taken place since the first one in Damascus in December 2011. Of those, 26 have been recorded in the last six months by analysts who track the activities of the al Qaida-affiliated rebel groups among the forces fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.
Suicide bombings have featured in other wars. But the tactic has distinguished itself in Syria because the groups employing it seem to be doing it far more selectively than in other recent conflicts, especially compared to the war in Iraq, according to analysts who have studied the data of both conflicts.
While pure terror attacks that kill primarily civilians are not unheard of – an attack in the Turkish border city of Reyhanli in May that killed more than 40 recently was claimed by the anti-Assad Islamic State of Iraq and Syria group (ISIS) – many of the suicide bombings in Syria have had a readily identifiable military target. Often that target has defied more traditional rebel efforts to overwhelm it.
The Iraq experience is an especially apt comparison because both of the al Qaida-affiliated groups fighting in Syria, ISIS and the Nusra Front, have their roots in Iraq’s most radical Sunni Muslim group, al Qaida in Iraq. Analysts believe the more-targeted use of suicide bombings in Syria is the result of a reassessment of the al Qaida in Iraq philosophy that used suicide explosions to wreak widespread death and insecurity through the country’s civilian population.
The reassessment is no doubt due in part to what happened in Iraq, where Sunni Muslim tribesmen eventually turned on al Qaida in Iraq and joined with American forces to defeat it, at least long enough for U.S. troops to withdraw. Much of the leadership of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and of the Nusra Front experienced that rejection in Iraq firsthand, and analysts say they appear eager not to repeat in the current conflict.
In many cases this has included pursuing less harsh forms of Islamic justice in the areas in which they operate, though members of ISIS, which has a large component of non-Syrian members, have begun to alienate more moderate Syrian Muslims with a zeal for enforcing the minutest of rules on a war-weary population.
Still, suicide bombings, which were a near daily occurrence during the harshest years of bloodshed in Iraq and killed thousands, are used much less frequently in Syria – and with much more directed effect, analysts say.
Charles Lister, an analyst with IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, said there are two major differences to the way suicide bombers have been deployed in Syria, compared to Iraq.
“Firstly, suicide attacks have primarily been used in the form of militarily valuable initial incisions into well-guarded fixed targets, thereby providing a more conducive environment for ground forces,” he recently wrote. “And secondly, a pre-eminent focus on using the tactic against military and occasionally government stationary targets has, particularly in the last six to nine months, reduced the incidence of such attacks inflicting high numbers of civilian casualties.”
The two changes, Lister said, has made suicide bombings “a far more militarily efficient tactic that can contribute towards attacks involving multiple rebel groups against targets of significant importance.”
Lister also noted that when rebels do strike seemingly civilian targets, they tend to ensure that only pro-government areas are hit, which tends to reduce the outcry from rebel supporters, “thereby avoiding the likelihood of the tactic negatively affecting the support for jihadist groups within sections of the anti-government civilian population.”
Aymeen al Tamimi, a fellow at the Philadelphia-headquartered Middle East Forum, has been tracking the use of suicide bombings by ISIS and Nusra since the groups announced that both represented al Qaeda in the Syrian conflict. He said of the 14 ISIS-linked and 12 Nusra-claimed bombings from April to early October, the majority, although not all, appeared to follow a more focused strategy.
“To be sure in Syria neither Nusra nor ISIS is replicating the scale of indiscriminate suicide attacks in Iraq, where suicide bombers routinely try to target social gatherings and the like,” he said. “The focus is still primarily on military targets and attempts to show that operations are not intended to target ‘Muslim’ civilians.”
Prior to the April announcement that both Nusra and ISIS would remain separate but loyal to al Qaeda, there were at least 64 such operations, including the first large scale attack by Nusra in December 2011. In that operation, a series of car bombs – it remains unconfirmed if they were suicide bombers or remotely detonated – struck outside a majority military intelligence office building, killing and wounding scores of civilians and passersby.
By contrast, al Qaida and other Iraqi insurgent groups conducted more than 1,000 suicide attacks during the 2003-2010 American occupation, peaking at nearly 500 suicide attacks in 2007 alone. According to data collected by the Rand Corporation for a 2010 study, most of the Iraqi attacks were directed at U.S. military targets along with Iraqi security forces or allies of the occupation before shifting in 2005 towards hitting Shiite Muslim neighborhoods with an emphasis on maximizing civilian casualties as the war took on overt sectarian overtones.
Liwa al Islam, a Damascus-based group that has morphed into the umbrella organization Jaysh Islam or Army of Islam, claims a suicide bomber struck a critical meeting inside a highly secure government building in June, 2012, killing three top security officials of the regime, and reportedly badly wounding President Bashar Assad’s brother, Maher, who is widely considered a key regime enforcer.
Although few details have emerged as to exactly how a radical Islamist carrying explosives entered a room filled with top security officials, both sides seem to agree it was a suicide bombing.
One Syrian media activist with strong ties to the rebels says the Iraqi approach – which continues to this day with dozens of civilians killed this month alone – baffles even Syrian jihadists who might otherwise be sympathetic to attacks on the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.
“Martyr operations in Syria still bear the character of being against the Syrian regime and its fortified military areas,” said Zakwan Hadid from Idlib, via Skype. “In Iraq, we just don’t know why these operations are happening.”
Zeeran Mohammad, a journalist from Hasaka in northeast Syria, fears the difference from Iraq won’t last.
“The operations in Iraq are targeting sects and civilians in a greater way,” he said via Skype. “They put as their targets the largest number of people, and therefore they find this in markets and mosques. In Syria, this has yet to happen. I believe the reason for this is because the war in Iraq has focused on sectarianism since the 90s between the Sunni and the Shiites, but in Syria this only appeared in the last two years.”
But Mohammed says the new dominance of ISIS and Nusra on the battle field could make suicide bombings aimed at civilians more frequent as the Syrian conflict drags on.
“As the conflict continues more extreme groups will come along,” he said.
The military value of suicide attackers was made clear this past summer at the Menagh Air Base in northern Syria. The base had defied rebel efforts to seize it for nearly a year as its holdout garrison continued to shell the surrounding rebel-held areas at will from behind heavily fortified defenses. Multiple rebel offensives by moderate rebels who’d pledged allegiance to the moderate Free Syrian Army failed.
Then the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria sent a unit of fighters to help the effort.
On Aug. 5, two suicide bombers, one reportedly a Saudi national, rammed an armored personnel carrier packed with explosives through the gate and into the command center before detonating their load. The blast destroyed much of the beleaguered garrison’s defenses, and the base quickly fell. FSA officials openly thanked ISIS for its contribution to the battle and could be seen congratulating Chechen jihadists who’d helped with the assault in video posted on the Internet. There was little outcry from rebel backers uncomfortable with the presence of foreign jihadists in the ranks.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero