I am as skeptical as the next guy about reports like this for obvious reasons. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken seriously. The German weekly, Focus, is reporting (here is an English language summary) that a “former Mossad officer” tells them that IDF Unit 8200 (Israel’s NSA) has intercepted Syrian government communications that confirms Assad’s responsibility for the recent chemical gas attack on a Damascus suburb that left more than 1,000 civilians, including many children, dead.
On Focus‘ bona fides: a German Twitter follower responded to my question about its editorial affiliation that it is “right-wing, neo-liberal, and superficial.” Given that, I think we have to exercise caution in crediting the story as true.
Yediot has now reported and confirmed the story as well. It says that three senior Israeli military-intelligence officers are currently in Washington briefing their U.S. counterparts on the Unit 8200 intercepts. The paper also claims that the primary evidence the west is using on which to base its charges of Syria government responsibility is the IDF secret intercepts. This makes me nervous for several reasons: one, because IDF claims are notoriously unreliable. This brings to mind the Mossad’s notoriously biased “evidence” offered regularly to the IAEA to “prove” Iran’s intent to develop nuclear weapons. Two, it makes me wonder what Israel’s ulterior motives may be in weighing in like this.
One reason might be to score points with the Americans by offering the fruit of Israel’s most advanced surveillance technology in exposing a heinous crime that the world cannot easily overlook. Israel’s offer of this intelligence to the U.S. gets it in the U.S.’ good graces as the former looks down the road to other matters in which Israel will need U.S. support, namely Iran.
An Israeli friend reminds me of this historical incident which has some parallels with today’s story. The west got its first look at Nikita Khrushchev’s famous 1956 speech denouncing Stalin through the good offices of the Israeli Shin Bet. A Polish journalist offered the document to an Israeli agent in its Polish embassy. Eager to please our U.S. allies, the Israelis shared it with the CIA and thence it made its way to Pres. Eisenhower. Less than a month after the story of the speech was leaked, Israel joined with France and Britain in attacking Egypt. No doubt, the Israelis hoped their military ‘indiscretions’ might be forgiven by dint of sharing the world-altering speech. It didn’t work. Eisenhower was furious and ordered Israel and its partners to give up their territorial gains, which they did.
Another reason for Israel to expose the chemical attack might be to send a signal to Assad that Israeli will not countenance certain developments it sees as dangerous escalations of the conflict. This might explain the IAF’s reportedly unsuccessful attack on a Latakia weapons depot targeted to destroy advanced Russian Yakhont anti-ship missiles. The latest provocation was a PFLP rocket attack on northern Israel in which several landed in civilian population areas. The penetration of these missiles into Israel also indicated continuing failures of the much-vaunted Iron Dome anti-missile system. The Palestinian-Lebanese militant group is known to be closely allied to the Assad regime and this attack can only have happened with the approval or knowledge of the Syrians.
Telling the world that the Syrian butcher practically mixed the chemicals himself that were used to murder men, women and children in cold blood is a shot across the bow from Israel’s point of view. A shot that takes him closer to a docket in the Hague.
Given that skepticism I expressed above, I still believe the story must be taken seriously. Israel hates Assad but may hate the Islamist rebels even more. For it to provide compelling evidence of Assad’s complicity in this heinous crime, knowing that it might conceivably lead to the dictator’s downfall and the rise of an Islamist government, gives Israel no clear motive to lie.
On the other hand and just to complicate things further: Israel may find Assad’s fall acceptable if it can promote a fragmentation of the country into ethnic enclaves, much like Lebanon was at the time of its occupation of southern Lebanon from 1982-2000. A Syrian Golan that breaks away from the rest of the nation and becomes an Israeli sphere of influence is something Israel might accept with some equanimity in order to counteract a potential Islamist threat in other portions of the country.