An Assassination Attempt and Israel’s Shifting Strategic Picture
By William Tucker
Analyzing the words spoken by political officials can be tricky business, and for the most part, they mean very little without some form of action taking place. That is, rhetoric is just rhetoric until it manifests into something actionable. A case in point is the recent claimed attempt by the Syrian Free Army to assassinate several members of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad’s cabinet. Although it appears that the attempt failed, there was no independent confirmation that the operation even took place. That is until the Israelis, without any real incentive to do so, stated that the assassination attempt took place, but each of the targets appeared to survive. Not only did Israeli intelligence confirm the operation, they took the extra step and disclosed several important details that were previously unknown. Furthermore, two weeks prior to this event Israel had changed its assessment on Syria and was claiming that the Assad regime was unlikely to survive. Two days after the report that Israel changed its view of Syria, the Washington Post disclosed information that the U.S. was providing anti-armor weaponry to the Syrian opposition. These changes in rhetoric and intelligence assessments, coupled with a sophisticated assassination attempt against Assad’s cabinet and U.S. support for the Syrian opposition, are anything but coincidental. With these actions taking place it becomes necessary to review the rhetoric and the changes in the Middle East that has forced this action.
The Assassination Attempt
As previously stated, the Free Syrian Army and Israeli intelligence are the two sources that disclosed details of the assassination plot. It appears that the members of Assad’s cabinet that were targeted formed the “crisis management cell” which is handling the government’s response to the 14 month uprising. The FSA announcement had claimed that some had been killed, while the Israelis said last minute medical intervention saved the officials. Some of the targets have made public announcements via the Syrian media to prove that they are indeed alive. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Israeli officials believe that it was the FSA’s al- Sahaba battalion that carried out the operation, but the FSA took matters a step further. In their May 20th announcement, the FSA claimed they had recruited the bodyguard of Mohammed Said Bakhtian, the national secretary of the Syrian Baath Party, to carry out the operation. The FSA stated that the bodyguard had since left the country. Other targets include Assaf Shawkat, the head of military intelligence; Defense Minister Daoud Rajha; Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar; Hassan Turkmani, an aide to the vice president; and national security chief Hisham Bakhtiar.
Assassination by poisoning a food source is typically a rather intimate operation – intimate in the sense that the operators are exercising their plot in close proximity to the intended target. The further upstream from the target that the poison is introduced lowers the possibility of success because food or water may be treated prior to preparation. Assassins that have employed poison have typically targeted food or water between the time it’s prepared and the time it’s served. This lowers the chance that the infected foodstuffs could be cleaned or sanitized prior to, or during, preparation. It also serves to ensure that the intended target is the recipient of the poison. This methodology applies to both organic and synthetic poisons.
Although the methodology of using poison as a means of assassination is fairly straightforward, the placement of the assassin is not. This case seemed odd when it was first reported, but the claim that it was a bodyguard pushed the envelope a bit. It didn’t make sense that a bodyguard was in a kitchen where food is being prepared and was able, without anyone noticing or stopping him mind you, to poison the dishes of over a dozen people. If the protective detail placed a member in the kitchen to monitor food preparation then the story might have a bit more credibility, but again, the operative would need several minutes to use the poison and ensure that the dishes didn’t appear to be tampered with. The operation may have transpired the way the FSA claims, but it is more likely that more than one conspirator was involved. It is possible that the FSA made the claim and deliberately outed their source as a form of psychological warfare against the Syrian elite; however there is nothing to back that claim and the Israeli report only mentions a specific battalion.
Another aspect to consider is the poison itself. Neither the FSA nor the Israelis mentioned the source or type of poison used in this assassination plot. Both organic and synthetic poisons could certainly be obtained by a non-state actor for use in an assassination. Unfortunately, even knowing the type of poison may not provide enough of an indication as to whether the FSA had nation-state support in this operation. Suspicions have already been directed at Israel, but although plausible, it is unlikely. Israel may have made contact, or attempted to do so, with the FSA, but how that relationship works, if it exists at all, is unknown. It is likely that Israel has tried to make contact with the Syrian opposition. After all Syria is a neighbor and a change in regime in Damascus will not change that. Communication, however, is a far cry from aiding in an assassination attempt. One thing that is curious is that two weeks before this plot took place Israel publicly stated that it now believed the days of the Assad regime were numbered. This change in assessment has more to do with what is going on in Egypt and the wider Middle East as opposed to what is happening just in Syria alone.
Israel’s changing strategic picture
The wider, regional view of Israel’s security has changed significantly over the past year. For the purposes of this article we’ll focus on the Sinai and the Golan Heights, however. Since the military coup ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the security situation in the Sinai has gone from bad to worse. Throw in the smuggling of weapons from the arsenal of the late Muammar Gaddafi and you have a real problem. At Israel’s request, Egypt has sent its military into the Sinai to augment the existing security forces, but this hasn’t been enough to handle the situation. Currently, the Sinai situation is a threat to both Egypt and Israel. This isn’t an existential threat, nowhere near it, however it can evolve into a threat to the peace agreement between the two nations. The situation is tense, but manageable. With that in mind, the fall out between Israel and Turkey over the Gaza flotilla shows just how quickly tense political situations can change. And unlike the situation with Turkey, Egypt actually borders Israel.
If there is a bad situation in the south, the last thing Israel wants to deal with is a problem in Golan as well. It is true that southern Lebanon has been quiet and Israel occupies the Golan Heights; however al-Qaeda linked groups, and other jihadist movements, have become active in Syria during the uprising. Add to that the possibility that Hezbollah could become more aggressive, then it becomes a problem for the Israelis in the short term. With continuing uncertainty in the north and south it makes sense that Jerusalem would reach out to the Syrian opposition if for nothing more than to open a line of communication. Currently, the FSA is getting an increasing level of support from the nations of the Gulf Cooperative Council in the form of money and weapons. Now with Washington playing with the FSA, Israel would be unlikely to risk anything other than communicating.
This short term risk may serve to also explain the comments of the Israeli Military Chief of the General Staff Benny Gantz. In late April, Gantz shocked many by stating that he didn’t believe that Iran would ultimately build a nuclear weapon. This claim ran counter to those of the civilian leadership, and yet, didn’t result in any disciplinary action. In fact, the bulk of the rhetoric coming out of Israel rested on security concerns much closer to home. An interesting development considering all the political wrangling of the past few years. This doesn’t mean that Jerusalem is letting go of its concerns over Iran’s nuclear program; rather the short term security picture has deteriorated to the point that the political attention was forced to shift. Israel is a small nation and it has limited bandwidth available to deal with its security challenges. Its not unprecedented that focus would change so quickly, but it shouldn’t be misconstrued as ignoring one issue at the expense of another. Defense decisions of all nations are faced with the need to prioritize and Israel is no different. Good intelligence helps with this prioritization and getting that intelligence means talking to those around you. Even an unlikely source such as the FSA.
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