The U.S. State Department confirmed the attack. All diplomats at the U.S. Embassy were reportedly safe.
Details Of The Attack
Witnesses said the attackers drove up to the building in a car and began shooting at the Syrian guards at the building's entrance. The guards returned fire.
During the brief battle, the assailants apparently blew up their car. Later, bomb-disposal experts defused explosives that were found in a second vehicle parked near the embassy.
An man working in an office some 200-300 meters from the U.S. Embassy building in Damascus described what he saw.
"There was gunfire, there was smoke, black smoke coming from the [U.S.] Embassy or close to the embassy," the man told RFE/RL. "We are close to the embassy, but not so close to see what was going on. What we heard was some explosions and machine-gun exchange."
Militant Groups In Syria
The attack once again focuses attention on the presence of militant groups in Syria and their uneasy relationship with the Damascus government.
Volker Perthes, director of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, says Syria has long suppressed home-grown Islamist groups that could challenge its authority. But he says that newer, Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have become increasingly active in Syria since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
“[The government] has of course a history of fighting the Muslim Brotherhood, which used to be the strongest Islamist group in Syria but probably no longer is," Perthes says. "The Syrian government has more problems these days, probably, with Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups -- groups working on the Al-Qaeda model, 'jihadists,' as we used to say -- which are certainly not under the control of the government and which have been clashing with [Syrian] government forces here and there.”
Washington regularly accuses Damascus of letting militant groups send fighters to Iraq over the Syrian border. U.S. officials also say some mosques in Syria act as recruiting and staging posts for the fighters.
Washington and the Iraqi government also have repeatedly called on Damascus to close the border and to clamp down on financiers -- including former members of the regime deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein -- believed to be sending money to Iraq for the insurgency.
Damascus, which has strained relations with Washington, says it plays no role in the passage of fighters or funds into Iraq.
Perthes says there are both benefits and dangers for Syria in the presence of the militants.
“The Syrian government has sort of walked on a thin rope since it did give support to radical Islamist groups outside Syria," Perthes says. "[They gave support] partly probably to neutralize them or to have them refrain from any acts against the Syrian government in Syria. It may also partly be an expression of Syria’s own odd alliance policies, [as] when it consented in the first months after the Iraq war to have Syrian volunteers go to Iraq and fight the American occupation forces. Meanwhile, I think, the Syrian government is [now] more afraid of having parts of these volunteers coming back to Syria and practicing a jihad at home.”
Clashes With Syrian Forces
Perthes says over the past several years there have been repeated clashes between Syrian security forces and militants.
These have occurred not only in the center and north of Syria -- which has historically been a basis for Islamist unrest against the secular Ba'athist government -- but also in the capital.
The militant activity comes despite efforts by the Syrian government over the past years to increasingly reach out to conservative Islamist groups, including by building more mosques.
Analysts say that whether the “angry young men” passing through Syria, or recruited in Syria, to fight in Iraq will become a growing threat to the Syrian government’s own future remains to be seen.
But the attack on the U.S. Embassy today shows that at the very least the militants pose a threat to Western interests in Damascus.
And that cannot fail to weaken Syria, too. It could frighten off badly needed foreign investment and only strengthen Washington’s arguments that Syria harbors terrorists and should be isolated on the world stage.
(with material from wire reports)