Syrian scientist killing is a message to Assad and Tehran

Does the death of Dr. Aziz Asbar represent a new phase in targeting an Iran-Damascus weapons program?

August 5, 2018 15:55
3 minute read.
Syrian scientist killing is a message to Assad and Tehran

A member of Iran's army speaks with a visitor as they stand next to the Iranian Yasser ballistic bomb during a war exhibition to commemorate the anniversary of Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Baharestan square near the Parliament building in southern Tehran . (photo credit: REUTERS/MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL)


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The killing of a Syrian scientist as he left his house in Hama will be read as a message to the Syrian regime in Damascus. The scientist was allegedly a key part of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC). The center is involved in research and development of chemical weapons and long-range missiles that are produced near Hama.

The killing of a scientist represents a new development in the war in Syria as it changes from an active phase of conflict between the government and rebels to a regional phase, in which the US, Turkey, Russia and Iran play key roles in parts of Syria and Israel looks on with concern.

The scientist, Dr. Aziz Asbar, sometimes spelled “Isbar” or “Esber,” was reported to have been working on a medium- and long-range missile program at the SSRC in Masyaf. News first emerged of his death from a car bomb on Saturday night. “Reports that Aziz Esber, a very senior figure in the Syrian Scientific Studied and Research Center, who worked on missile development and directed R&D facility in Masyaf, was killed in a car bomb in Hama,” tweeted Syrian expert Tony Badran.

The Masyaf facility is a key part of the network of SSRC sites. It has been the target of an air strike that local reports blamed on Israel. It is one of three sites alleged to be involved in chemical weapons production, according to a May report from the BBC. In addition, the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control notes that Masyaf is where chemical weapons are installed on long-range missiles.

In April 2017, the US Treasury Department designated 271 staff members of the SSRC for sanctions. The SSRC, and those connected to Masyaf have also been singled out for sanctions by Australia and other governments. However, on the list of names, Dr. Asbar – or any of the various ways to spell his name – is not listed. This could be because he was not senior enough. But if his role was as key as is alleged in the reports, the omission of Asbar’s name was either an oversight or because his primary role was related to rocketry and not chemical weapons.

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REPORTS also indicate that Asbar was a head of the Masyaf facility and was close to both Syrian leader Bashar Assad and Iran, a unique link in a network that ties Damascus to Tehran.

Iran’s Press TV singled out Israel for blame in Asbar’s death. It noted that on July 22, the Masyaf facility was struck by a missile, which it also blamed on Israel. “Dr. Isbir was not present at the site,” Press TV claimed. How they would know that is unclear, unless of course members of the scientist’s staff told the Iranians or pro-Iranian media these details.

The death of Asbar is reminiscent of other assassinations of high-profile individuals in Hamas and Hezbollah. For instance, Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah was killed in a car bomb in 2008 in Damascus, and a Hamas official was targeted with a car bomb in Lebanon in January 2018.

The key role that Asbar allegedly played as a link between Assad and Iran also conjures up memories of Mahmoud Al-Mahbouh, who was assassinated in Dubai in 2010. Al-Mahbouh had helped arrange the movement of weapons from Iran to the Gaza Strip. As such, his death damaged the Hamas-Iran network.

In 2012, Iranian scientist Mostafa Roshan was killed when his Peugot 405 was blown up in Tehran. He was a deputy director of a unit at the Natanz uranium enrichment center, according to CNN.

Being a scientist connected to Iran, Syria, ballistic missiles and chemical weapons can be a dangerous business. The larger story is that this is the first high-level assassination of a SSRC member. This sends a message to Damascus that its facilities may not only be bombed, but that the brains behind them may suffer as well.

Countless sites in Syria have been targeted by air strikes, many of them blamed on Israel by Damascus. However, in the last month, at least one facility at Damascus Airport was shown to have been rebuilt. That illustrates that Iran’s infrastructure can be easily repaired. Scientists who understand ballistic missiles, however, cannot be so easily replaced.

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