Scientist’s death highlights Israel’s Syria dilemma

The debate over Asbar’s death goes beyond the fate of an individual Syrian scientist.
Sunday 12/08/2018
A map locating the Syrian town of Masyaf. (AFP)
A map locating the Syrian town of Masyaf. (AFP)

TUNIS - During the night of August 4, in the Syrian town of Masyaf, high-level Syrian scientist Aziz Asbar was killed in a car bombing. All fingers point to Israel as being responsible for the attack.

The T4 weapons development factory in Masyaf has been the target of repeated air strikes and missile attacks for much of Syria’s civil war, with scientists at the facility suspected by Israeli intelligence of developing weapons capable of striking at enemies both at home and abroad.

In February, Israeli jets struck at the plant after an alleged Iranian drone, launched from the site, entered Israeli airspace. In April, Israeli missiles struck the plant after a chemical attack on the Damascus’s suburb of Ghouta. Throughout, Iran’s and its proxies’ presences at the base are said to have been ubiquitous.

“Israel’s red lines have to do with the range, precision and survivability of systems.” Jeffrey Martini, a senior Middle East analyst at the RAND Corporation, said via e-mail. “What little we know about Mr Asbar suggests he was working on improving these aspects of Syria’s missile programme. That made him a potential target for an Israeli strike.”

The debate over Asbar’s death goes beyond the fate of an individual Syrian scientist, cutting to the heart of the dilemma over how far Israel, and by extension the United States, can rely on Damascus’s principal ally, Russia, to constrain Iran within Syria.

The Israeli national security apparatus is said to be split. Some say Iran is an intractable part of Damascus’s security apparatus. Others, including Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who was born in the Soviet Union, look to Russia to serve as a bulwark against Iran.

“Asbar’s assassination has really brought all of this into the open,” said Nicholas Heras, Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Secu­rity. “Assuming it was the Israelis, Asbar’s killing highlights the gulf between those who are ready to go after a high-value target in Syria they suspect of working with the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and those that would look to Russia to counter that.”

Irrespective of any short-term action Israel might consider in Syria, Russia is wedded to the country’s long-term future, not least through its naval base at Tartus and the airfield at Latakia. For Russia to fulfil its policy goals in Syria, the country must be stabilised and Iranian influence nullified, which are also Israeli aims. The more hawkish in Tel Aviv argue that Iran is so entrenched with Syria that its influence pervades Damascus. Russia’s willingness and ability to restrain Tehran, as highlighted by Moscow’s apparent weakness in the face of the regime’s push into south-western Syria, are also subject to doubt.

The implications of Asbar’s killing carry beyond Tel Aviv. “This really is the first significant test of the [United States’] ‘America first policy’,” Heras said. “It puts the question squarely in front of the Trump administration: To what degree can you influence events in western Syria without deploying any significant assets there? And again that question leads the US back to the Russians.”

At least for the short term, Moscow’s value as a check against Iran is open to question. In terms of manpower, Tehran’s commitment to the Syrian conflict far eclipses that of Moscow. While Tehran might not feature prominently in Moscow’s long-term plans for Syria, those plans remain far distant from a tumultuous present. Any question over the degree of threat Tel Aviv is willing to accept from within Syria was answered unambiguously in Masyaf: very little.

9