Does Israel have reason to target Syrian nuclear experts?
By YOSSI MELMAN/Jerusalm Post
According to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, more than 200,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war since its outset in March 2011. But what has grabbed the media’s attention and headlines in the past three days is the unconfirmed report that five nuclear experts were killed in an ambush while riding a bus to their workplace a few days ago in Damascus. The story immediately fueled the conspiratorial theories that maybe Israeli intelligence, namely the Mossad, had been behind it.
It started with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reported that the attack was carried out on Sunday near the Barzeh neighborhood of Damascus. Barzeh is the site of a small nuclear laboratory. It has a Chinese-built miniature neutron source reactor, a small and compact research reactor copied from a Canadian design. This reactor, from its inception, has been under the supervision of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors have visited the site many times.
Yet the reactor, which is fueled by highly enriched uranium supplied in small amounts by China and a few other nuclear facilities, served as a decoy to divert attention from the secret construction of the much bigger nuclear reactor in eastern Syria built by North Korea and bombed by the Israel Air Force in 2007. The Syrian government has not yet reacted to the reports. The Iranian media also ignored it, now Iran’s Press TV has published a short factual item about the incident, although it fails to mention that probably one of the five dead experts was an Iranian engineer. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which occurred in an area controlled by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. Still, the possibility that Israel was behind it is very unlikely. After destroying the nuclear reactor in 2007, when it was on the verge of being operational and capable of producing plutonium as fissile material for nuclear bombs, the threat of Syria becoming a nuclear power was removed. According to foreign news reports, Israel has occasionally – at least times – interfered in the civil war by sending its air force to bomb convoys of Syrian trucks heading with sophisticated weapons bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel perceives any ground, sea and air missiles supplied to Hezbollah as a threat to its military posture. But not when it comes to the now-negligible and practically non-existent Syrian nuclear program.
Thus, there is no incentive for Israel to risk its intelligence-gathering operatives and military forces by being involved in such an operation. In simple words, Syria no longer poses a serious military – not to mention nuclear – threat to Israel. So why bother? Furthermore, it is not the first time that Syrian nuclear scientists were targeted during the civil war. In a similar incident in July of last year, six people working at the same center were killed in a mortar attack carried out by anti-government militants. It seems more likely that it was another act of violence by one of the rival groups fighting the Assad regime. Or, one should not rule out that it was an act of revenge – an inside job by the regime itself, for whatever reason.