Car bombing bears hallmark of a Mossad operation but fingers also point at other suspects, writes Richard Hall in Beirut
Was Israel behind the killing of a Syrian scientist working on precision guided missiles?
Long before his death, Aziz Asbar's name had circulated beyond Syria's borders, attracting attention among security agencies.
His work at the Scientific Studies and Research Centre in Masyaf, near Hama, focused on weapons that pose as much of a threat to Syria's external enemies as it does to the internal rebellion against President Bashar Al Assad.
For Mr Asbar was Syria's rocket man, heading a department responsible for the production of precision long and medium-range missiles. That put him in close contact with the regime's top officials, as well as Mr Assad's top regional allies Iran and Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shia movement.
No one in recent times has taken as much interest in the Masyaf research centre as Israel, striking it in September last year and again as recently as July 22. The facility was also on the radar of Western intelligence agencies, which targeted it with financial sanctions for its suspected involvement in Syria’s chemical weapons programme.
So when Mr Asbar’s assassination – in a car bombing – was claimed on Saturday by a relatively unknown rebel group, the Abu Amara Brigades, it was greeted with some scepticism.
"They have developed a reputation internally for being a little too swift to claim attacks that few think they have the means to conduct," Charles Lister, author of ‘The Syrian Jihad,’ told The National.
The Abu Amara Brigades emerged early in Syria’s uprising, in Aleppo. The group’s conservative Islamist leanings set it apart from the more moderate rebel groups in the area. It linked up with the Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham, and in May 2017 joined the former Al Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
Although the group’s claim of Mr Asber's assassination has been largely waved off, it has claimed responsibility for a litany of high-profile attacks over the past few years, many of them behind enemy lines.
In November last year, its ‘Special Tasks Unit’ claimed it had killed five officers involved in “scientific research” in Homs, again using explosives. It also claimed the killing of Brigadier General Jamal Razuk in February, an attack pro-government media blamed on ISIS.
"They probably have been behind some of the attacks – particularly given their previous links with Ahrar al-Sham, which developed cells on the coast. But some, like this one in Masyaf, seem less likely,” said Mr Lister.
In the aftermath of the attack, everyone else had a simpler explanation for who was behind Mr Asbar’s killing: Israel’s Mossad spy agency.
State media in Iran and Syria quickly pointed the finger at Israel. The New York Times, quoting “a senior official from a Middle Eastern intelligence agency” said on Monday that Israel was behind the assassination.
Mr Asber was killed on Saturday evening while driving somewhere in the Hama countryside. According to reports, a bomb placed somewhere in his car exploded, killing him and his driver.
At the time of his death, he was thought to be leading a unit within the Masyaf centre called Sector 4, which had been working with Iran to produce more accurate version of Syrian SM600 rockets that could hit targets hundreds of miles away.
Little is known about Mr Asber’s life outside of work, but Brigadier-General Zaher al-Sakat, a former chemical weapons chief in Syria who defected in 2013, described him as “a respectful, moral, pleasant, intelligent man, who would choose his words carefully.”
“He was not sociable, just like all those who work in this area. This is because they are afraid of being watched and gone after,” he told The National.
Gen. Sakat has an entirely different theory as to who is behind Mr Asber’s killing.
The defector, who briefly joined the armed opposition in Syria before fleeing the country, said Mr Asber had nothing to do with the development of chemical weapons, but that his knowledge of their use would have made him a target of the government.
"All those who might later testify against the government in international criminal courts are being killed,” said Gen. Sakat. “As the head of the research centre he knew all about the weapons there. He learnt a lot about use of chemical weapons."
"They will probably accuse Israel. Or the opposition will claim responsibility. This will be a lie. The Assad regime liquidated him."
Israel doesn’t comment on reports of assassinations carried out by Mossad, but the country’s Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz welcomed Mr Asbar’s death on Tuesday.
“I can say that assuming the details of this man's activities are correct and he was engaged in developing chemical weapons and longer-range missiles capable of hitting Israel, I certainly welcome his demise,” he said.
Throughout Syria’s civil war, Israel has repeatedly carried out airstrikes against targets it deems a threat to its security, mostly focused on Iranian and Hezbollah interests. But the assassination of Asber would signal a new approach to the conflict, and a recognition that airstrikes alone cannot contain the threat from Syria and its allies.
Mossad has been carrying out targeted assassinations in Syria since before the civil war.
In 2008, it was thought to be behind two high profile killings in the country. Brigadier General Mohammed Suleiman – a key aide to President Assad and a liaison with the militant Lebanese Shia movement, Hezbollah – was shot by an Israeli naval commando sniper while on a beach near the Mediterranean port of Tartous.
The same year, Mossad collaborated with the CIA to kill senior Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus with a car bomb placed behind the headrest in his car.
If Israel was behind the attack, the targeting of Mr Asber suggests that it may soon turn focus to Syria’s scientists, just as it did in Iran between 2010 and 2012. Mossad was blamed for the killing of four top Iranian scientists involved in the country’s nuclear programme over that period.
While those killings were credited with setting back Iran’s alleged nuclear programme, Gen. Sakat, the defector, doubts the assassination of Mr Asber will have much of an impact on Syria’s missile programme.
“It will not disrupt it because they have many experts including those who studied in America, in the Soviet Union, who will make the plans continue without them being disrupted.”