Seven years ago, an Israeli Special Forces team near Tartus, Syria’s second largest city and a popular vacation spot, somehow managed to get near the house of a Syrian general while he was hosting a dinner party. They put bullets into his head and neck, and disappeared without a peep. Until now.
As The Intercept continues to make its way through the documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, it’s still coming upon weird tidbits. Not the “the government can and does listen to everything you do or say,” as that cat’s out of the bag now, but mostly about what other governments do and say.
And the NSA learned quite a bit by spying on the Israeli government, because that’s just what good friends do. In this case, they learned all about the assassination of Muhammad Suleiman, a general in the Syrian Army whose official titles included Special Presidential Advisor for Arms Procurement and Strategic Weapons:
The internal National Security Agency document, provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, is the first official confirmation that the assassination of Suleiman was an Israeli military operation, and ends speculation that an internal dispute within the Syrian government led to his death.
The Israelis wanted Suleiman dead because of his work facilitating the transfer of weapons from Iran to the terrorist group Hezbollah, and also because he was in charge of the construction of Syria’s secret North Korea-designed nuclear reactor that Israel later destroyed.
A Der Spiegel report indicates that operation may have been launched from a passing yacht near Suleiman’s summer home:
The sea was calm that morning. Yachts were cruising off the coast, and there was nothing to raise suspicions in Tartous, a popular sailing destination for Syria’s moneyed aristocracy where boats can be chartered for visits to nearby Arwad Island and its fish restaurants. An unusually sleek yacht came within 50 meters of the coast, but it was not close enough to raise any red flags with the bodyguards when their boss decided to jump into the sea.
No one even heard the gunshots, which were probably fired from precision rifles equipped with silencers. But they clearly came from offshore, striking Sulaiman in the head, chest and neck. The general died before his bodyguards could do anything for him. The yacht carrying the snipers turned away and disappeared into international waters.
The Intercept’s made a bit of a hoot about how extra-judicial killings of a sitting foreign government official is most definitely Not Legal, according to the laws of war which all nations bend from time to time. But what I find most fascinating about the whole thing is how the Syrians themselves really didn’t seem to care that one of their top guys was killed at his own party.
And that’s probably because of what the Syrians found out he was doing behind their backs while investigating the incident:
The Assad government withheld news of the assassination for four days before announcing Suleiman’s death. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its involvement.
According to a classified State Department cable published online by WikiLeaks, the Syrian government’s investigation into the killing turned up $80 million in cash in Suleiman’s home. “[Assad] was said to be devastated by the discovery, and, fearing [Suleiman] had betrayed him, redirected the investigation from solving his murder to finding out how the general had acquired so much money,” the cable noted.
So in the end, it’s just another story of the realpolitik that holds sway in the Middle East, beyond all the bombast and declarations of ideology.
And of course, realpolitik practicality isn’t limited to the Middle East. It extends all the way to American shores:
The information in the document is labeled “SI,” which means that the intelligence was collected by monitoring communications signals. “We’ve had access to Israeli military communications for some time,” said one of the former U.S. intelligence officers.
The former officer said knowledge within the NSA about surveillance of Israeli military units is especially sensitive because the NSA has Israeli intelligence officers working jointly with its officers at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.
Photo of Israeli Paratroopers on a training mission credit: IDF