Shayetet 13 naval commandos.
(photo credit: IDF)
In a scene that could have been written for the silver screen, Israeli naval commandos in 2008 reportedly infiltrated the waters near Tartus, Syria, and eliminated a Syrian general during a dinner party held at his seaside villa.
According to a US National Security Agency document leaked by the organization’s ex-contractor, Edward Snowden, the Israel Navy’s elite amphibious special force, Shayetet 13 (Flotilla 13), is responsible for the operation that cut short Brig.-Gen. Muhammad Suleiman’s festive evening with shots to the head and neck.
If true, the leak could put to rest seven years’ worth of speculation as to how Suleiman died. Guesses so far have implicated various competing figures within the Syrian government in the murder.
While both the NSA and the Prime Minister’s Office have kept mum about the incident, sources consulted by The Intercept, a website created by American journalist Glenn Greenwald to report on Snowden’s leaks, claimed that the US has long had ears inside Israeli espionage circles.
“We’ve had access to Israeli military communications for some time,” a former US intelligence official said.
The original leak confirmed this claim, asserting that the NSA’s internal encyclopedic information system, Intellipedia, not only traced the assassination back to “Israeli naval commandos,” but knew enough about their past activities to confidently call the mission the “first known instance of Israel targeting a legitimate government official.”
The late brigadier-general – a close aide to Syrian President Bashar Assad – had multiple reasons for winding up in Israel’s crosshairs.
Suleiman was reportedly responsible for the development and security of Syria’s Ali Kibar nuclear facility, a site left defunct by an air strike attributed in the foreign press to Israel. The more likely reason for the lethal visit to Suleiman’s home, however, was the general’s apparent role in the armament and training of Hezbollah by Iran.
According to another leaked document – this time originating from the US State Department – Suleiman was flush with cash, the provenance of which remains unclear.
In the investigation after his death, the Syrian government discovered some $80 million stashed in the general’s home. “[Assad] was said to be devastated by the discovery.” The Syrian president, wary of Suleiman’s treachery, then “redirected the investigation from solving his murder to finding out how the general had acquired so much money,” the State Department paper asserted.
It remains unclear if Suleiman had siphoned off the money for personal use, or if it was related to Tehran’s funding of the Lebanese Shi’ite militia. Statements by the group’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, revealed the importance of the general to Hezbollah’s cause. The assassination was “linked” to Suleiman’s role in the 2006 Second Lebanon War between Hezbollah and Israel, Nasrallah told journalists last year, before the leak emerged.
The Intercept’s sources acknowledged the link between Suleiman and Israel’s 2006 summer incursion into Lebanon.
“For them it’s not only payback, but mitigates future operations,” a retired US intelligence officer who worked with Israeli officials, said. The source’s former relationship with the Israelis possibly took place at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, where Israel has liaison personnel who work with the intelligence agency.
“They will take a target of opportunity if it presents itself,” he said.