Analysis: Who could have been behind the massive explosion in Syria?

Whodunit? Massive explosion in Syria’s Hama leads to many theories as Syrian regime blame shifts between Israel and US.

Free Syrian Army fighters launch a Grad rocket from Halfaya town in Hama province, towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad stationed in Zein al-Abidin mountain, Syria September 4, 2016.  (photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR ABDULLAH/FILE PHOTO)
Free Syrian Army fighters launch a Grad rocket from Halfaya town in Hama province, towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad stationed in Zein al-Abidin mountain, Syria September 4, 2016.
A massive explosion rocked an area between Homs and Hama in northern Syria on Sunday night.
It began with a fire, followed by a huge blast in what appeared to be ammunition shot high in the air, like a horrid fireworks display.
Viewers from several areas filmed the explosion and reports claimed it even registered on seismic charts and could be seen for many kilometers.
So what happened in Syria? The Syrian regime claimed its military bases came under attack by missiles. According to popular pro-regime Twitter accounts, the details were clear: Explosions had struck the 47th Brigade base south of Hama and another area in Aleppo. Immediately the accounts focused their blame on Israel and said the base housed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members from Iran, allegedly stationed among a grove of trees overlooking the village of Maarin al-Jabal near route M5 between Hama and Homs.
Could Syrian rebels have done it? There are Syrian rebel forces around five kilometers south of the base. It’s possible that artillery, rocket or mortar fire might have been used from their positions.
However, pro-regime accounts dismissed this, claiming Russian air assets were active over Idlib and in the area and therefore the rebels wouldn’t use rockets. Of course, Idlib is north of Hama, while the rebel positions near Homs are much closer, but no one seems to have asked about that.
According to the Twitter account of Ivan Sidorenko, the casualties at the 47th Brigade base included IRGC members from the Zainebiyoun unit of Shi’ite Pakistanis. These are mostly poor Shi’ite recruits sent by Iran to fight in Syria. It’s not clear if the recruits – who were based next to the warehouses that blew up, which were likely full of weapons and ammunition – were the target.
Four hours after the strikes, at around 2 a.m., many pro-regime accounts shifted their blame from Israel to the US-led coalition. A narrative began to form which said the explosion was caused by a missile strike from the coalition base at al-Tanf or from airplanes off the coast, with missiles that flew over Jordan and struck Hama. Supposedly the missiles were directed at Iranian bases.
A post by Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi shed light on claims by a commander in the pro-regime Latakia Local Defense Forces, who said the strike was “likely an American strike in retaliation for the crossing onto Syrian Democratic Forces positions in Deir al-Zor.”
This was a reference to an attack on Sunday against US-backed Syrian Defense Forces that was launched by pro-regime forces stationed on the Euphrates River. Other accounts even showed maps and diagrams to “explain” how the attack was carried out by the US. These also sought to show that a US drone was hovering around the Mediterranean at the time of the strikes.
An even stranger rumor put out by some pro-Syrian rebel accounts said it was the Russians who had targeted their own Iranian allies.
“Russia was involved in negotiations in Homs and they wanted to negotiate, and the Astana meetings will take place in two weeks. Because the regime and Iran did not apply the Russian instructions, Russia struck the Iranian base,” a person wrote on Twitter.
Astana is the location of peace talks and the sixth round of discussions between Russia, Turkey and Iran, which are scheduled for mid-May.
The rumors and stories had largely dissipated by Monday morning. Iran’s ISNA news agency reported casualties at the site of the air strikes. But full details remained unclear. Iranian media even quoted Israeli media in order to claim the “Zionists” might have been responsible. Syria’s SANA state media included only a small report on the “foreign aggression” against the base in Hama, but was more interested in boasting about the regime’s successes in battles in southern Damascus against Islamic State and about an agreement to evacuate civilians from a Shi’ite enclave in Idlib.
So why did pro-regime accounts spread rumors that blamed the coalition for the strikes? Why did pro-regime media switch from reporting the “aggression” to ignoring it?
There had to be some explanation because no one could ignore the massive scale of the explosion. It might have been embarrassing for the regime to assert Israel had been responsible because it would then be forced to admit Russian air defenses had not been activated, despite assertions that future strikes would be challenged.
This made it easier for pro-regime activists to create a convoluted and complex story blaming the US for strikes from a “new” location near Jordan.
But by the morning, the necessity of blaming the US for the strike evaporated into a pragmatic decision of simply moving on. There are still dozens of killed and wounded at the Hama base. Details of their condition and the base itself have yet to emerge.