Syrian Brig. Gen. Mohammed Suleiman, a senior intelligence officer in the Assad regime, was assassinated by a seaborne sniper as he relaxed at his seaside villa in Tartous along the Syrian coast. It is a strange and mysterious development in a long line of them involving such murders in both Syria and Lebanon over the past few years.
Suleiman was Syria’s main liaison with Hezbollah and responsible for transferring the most sophisticated rocket weaponry from and through Syria to Hezbollah. Haaretz reports this interesting background information:
Israel yesterday declined to either confirm or deny any connection with Suleiman’s assassination.
This is the second time in the last two weeks that someone involved in arms smuggling to Hezbollah has been killed. Last week, Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported that an Iranian Revolutionary Guard convoy that was ferrying arms to Hezbollah suffered an unexplained explosion that killed 15 people. Both Iran and Israel declined to comment on that incident.
…Suleiman was thought to be in charge of overseeing both Iranian arms transfers to Hezbollah via Syria and shipments from Syria’s own arms industry. He focused in particular on supplies of long-range rockets, including 220-millimeter rockets with a 70-kilometer range like the one that struck a Haifa railway garage during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, killing eight people.
The Washington Post quotes this official Israeli response to the news:
Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said, “The Israeli government has neither any direct knowledge nor any comment on this incident.”
Ynetnews reports that the Syrian opposition, a source known for its unreliability, claims the killing was ordered by Assad himself so that Suleiman would not be able to testify against him in the Hariri investigation. I find this explanation suspect given peace overtures happening between Israel and Syria. The pressures of such an investigation and likelihood of them damaging Assad seem to have receded somewhat. Besides, if Assad wanted to kill him why would he need to create an elaborate plot involving a seaborne yacht and sniper?
AsiaNews reports a somewhat more credible motivation if Assad was involved:
There are different conjectures over the assassination of Suleiman, which could be seen in the context of the divisions within Syria created by the thaw that Assad seems to want to foster with Israel and the United States, with the consequent distancing from Hezbollah and Iran.
Lebanese enemies of Hezbollah and the Syrians would have a motive to kill Suleiman, but it seems unlikely they would have the wherewithal to devise an elaborate seaborne plot like the one that was used in this killing.
It seems much more likely that Israel would be the culprit, though at this point this is speculation. If Israel is involved I find its behavior strange. There are serious talks happening between Israel and Syria under Turkish auspices. If such talks were successful, Syria would eventually renounce its arming of Hezbollah. So why would Israel take a chance at jeopardizing the talks by killing a senior Assad confidant?
One answer might be that Israel is passing a message both to Hezbollah and Syria, telling Assad that they are deeply serious about eliminating Syrian support for Hezbollah; and telling the latter that the long arm of Israeli spookdom will reach out and pick them off no matter where they are (which would also explain Israel’s rumored involvement in the assassination of Imad Mougniyeh, Hezbollah’s number 2 commander).
Despite its interest in negotiating peace with Syria (and if Israeli intelligence performed the hit) it apparently wasn’t restrained from assassinating Mugniyah; nor did Israel desist from bombing an alleged Syrian nuclear facility some months ago. Israel, it would seem, is playing a calibrated game of both entertaining peace overtures involving Syria and attacking the regime when it suits Israel’s interests to do so. This isn’t a path that most other governments might follow in similar circumstances. But then again, Israel has always followed its own idiosyncratic path in these matters, often to its long-term detriment.
This guy was so mysterious that I haven’t even been able to find a picture of him. If anyone sees one please let me know.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.