Israel’s spies inside Damascus

The Israeli journalist, Ronen Bergman, who covers military and intelligence affairs for Yedioth Ahronoth, provides an Israeli-sourced history of Israel’s decades long surveillance and sabotage of Syria’s WMD programs.

In the mid-1990s, Syria succeeded in the manufacture of the most toxic chemical agent, VX. This agent is so hazardous that it consists of two separate substances that are kept apart inside a missile warhead and combine only when the warhead hits the ground, creating an extremely lethal neurotoxic agent. Unlike other chemical warfare elements, VX does not disperse in a short time. The know-how for the manufacture of this weapon was supplied by Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s advisor on chemical weapons disarmament, Gen. Anatoly Kuntsevich.

Under the guise of a routine working visit to Syria, and as part of the good military relations that had remained between Syria and Russia (with the Russians still maintaining intelligence bases in the Golan Heights and in northern Syria), Kuntsevich began forming personal links with the heads of the Syrian regime. He received huge amounts of money from them, and in turn, he supplied them with the know-how and some of the equipment, which he acquired in Europe, for the manufacture of VX weapons.

In 1998, the Mossad learned details of some of these transactions. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak tried to warn the heads of the government in Moscow about the general’s doings in meetings he held with them in 1999, but to no avail. It seemed as though Yeltsin could not, or would not, intervene. When the Israelis saw that their pressure was not working, Mossad agents in Europe were assigned to pose as independent researchers working on the background for a documentary film on gas warfare. They repeatedly contacted high-ranking officials in the Kremlin and the Russian army and said that according to their information, Kuntsevich was selling chemical warfare agents to Syria. The goal was to scare Moscow into believing that the information was about to be made public. Unfortunately, this didn’t work either, and apart from a stern warning, nothing was done to curb the general.

On April 3, 2002, Kuntsevich died mysteriously while on a flight from Damascus to Moscow. Also mysterious is the inscription on his headstone in Moscow, which states his death date as March 29. Syrian intelligence is convinced that the Mossad was behind his demise. Israeli officials have not commented on such allegations.

Historically, Israel has devoted many resources to keeping a watch on the Scientific Studies and Research Center, the main Syrian agency in charge of the effort to produce chemical and biological weapons. The SSRC was identified by U.S. intelligence as the front organization for the Syrian defense establishment, and the U.S. Treasury Department consequently imposed financial sanctions.

With over 10,000 personnel, the SSRC is responsible for operating the main facilities in Syria where chemical weapons are manufactured and stored, according to Israeli military intelligence estimates. The main site is at al-Safir, in northern Syria, where the chemical weapons are assembled and stored and some of the Scud missiles and launchers are kept.

Al-Safir was one of the prime targets for the possible American attack proposed in late August. Now that such an attack has been called off, it will be a site of enormous interest to international weapons inspectors. Al-Safir is an enormous facility, covering dozens of square kilometers and comprising several sections, surrounded by patrol roads and high double fences.

On July 25, 2007, at al-Safir, a horrendous breakdown occurred in the production line of VX warhead components, a line that was constructed by the Syrians and North Koreans. One of the pipes feeding substances to the assembly line burst, and within seconds the entire line became a blazing inferno. The blast was so powerful that doors were blown off the building and the noxious gases escaped and spread across the entire al-Safir facility. The initial explosion killed 15 Syrians and, according to reports reaching the Mossad, 10 Iranian engineers at the site. An unknown number of people were seriously wounded, and some 200 are believed to have been affected. The rescue and first-aid forces permanently stationed at al-Safir were unable to handle all the casualties, and the authorities had to call in outside firefighting and rescue services, violating their goal of maintaining maximum secrecy at the site.

Investigations carried out after the incident by a special team appointed by the Syrian president reached the unequivocal conclusion that this was an intentional act of sabotage, though to this day footprints leading to the perpetrators have not been traced. A senior Israeli cabinet minister speaking with me under terms of not identifying him would not refer directly to the al-Safir explosion, but would only say with a wink and a nod that it was “a marvelous mishap.” [Continue reading…]

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