Arab World: The covert murder capital?

Are Middle Eastern assassinations homegrown acts of defiance, or part of a wider shadow war with Israel?

bashar assad 311 (photo credit: AP)
bashar assad 311
(photo credit: AP)
Once viewed as perhaps the most lockeddown and policed city in the Middle East, the Syrian capital of Damascus has been the scene of a number of bombings and assassinations in the last few years. Most famously, of course, Hizbullah master-operative Imad Mughniyeh was killed by a car bomb in February 2008.
Last year, in a much messier affair, a number of Iranian pilgrims were killed in a bus bombing which the Syrian authorities did their clumsy best to conceal.
In the last month, an additional item must be added to the list of curious and unexplained acts of lethal violence to have taken place in the Syrian capital.
On May 16, Khaled Sultan al-Abed, a businessman and a senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, was shot dead outside his home in the same smart Damascus neighborhood in which Mughniyeh met his end. Mezzeh, which is also home to a number of foreign embassies, is one of the most closely watched as well as one of the most fashionable districts of Damascus.
Abed was the official head in Syria of Iran Khodro, a car franchise established by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. He had been resident in Damascus for 10 years, owned a 25 percent stake in the company, and had reportedly succeeded in forging close ties with prominent figures in the Syrian business community.
However, according to a report by veteran journalist Georges Malbrunot in Le Figaro this week, this position and Abed’s additional extensive business activities in Syria were intended to serve as a cover for his other duties – those of a liaison officer between the Iranian regime and Hizbullah.
The Syrian authorities are clearly deeply embarrassed at this latest breach of the daily tranquility of their capital. The murder was not reported by official news sources, and Syrian officials have made no comment upon it. An investigation into the killing of Abed has reportedly been launched.
WHO MIGHT have carried it out? A number of competing theories have emerged. One of these appeared on a Syrian opposition Web site and was picked up in Haaretz last week. According to this theory, Abed’s murder was carried out by a Sunni organization and is related to growing fear among Sunnis in Syria and beyond at the growth of Iranian influence in Syria.
This view would gibe with a larger perspective, accepted by many in Israel’s defense establishment, which identifies widespread dissatisfaction and fear at many levels in the Syrian establishment and society with the growing link with Iran. According to this explanation, certain elements are trying to sow discord between Iranians and Syrians, and are serving notice that Damascus should not be considered uncontested ground for the free activities of the Shi’ite Islamist Iranian regime.
Some versions of this theory suggest that even senior figures in the Syrian regime are deeply concerned at the growing link with Iran, and may be involved – explaining how the killing was able to take place in one of the most densely policed areas of the Syrian capital, with no one being apprehended.
However, proponents of this view need to ask themselves whether elements close to the regime would wish to suggest its vulnerability in quite so blatant a way. Police states such as Syria, after all, derive what legitimacy they possess from their ability to police effectively.
This ability is surely starkly called into question by the recent murder of Abed and the other incidents to have taken place in Damascus recently.
An alternative explanation, given greater credence by both Malbrunot and other sources, sees the killing of Abed as the latest act in Israel’s “shadow war” against Iran.
Malbrunot noted Abed’s close links with the Kuds force, the clandestine external wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Both he and other sources hinted at the possibility that the murdered man may have been involved in the transfer of Iranian weaponry to Hizbullah. An unnamed source claims that “one thing is for sure: Most of those murdered in Syria in recent years were on the list of those wanted by Israel.” Is this a coincidence, Malbrunot asks by way of conclusion.
In the usual manner of things Syrian, the real perpetrators of the murder and their motives are likely to remain shrouded in mystery and to remain the subject of much speculation.
But as with many such affairs, perhaps the most interesting aspects are ultimately those clearly visible to the naked eye. A senior operative in the most clandestine element of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is gunned down in broad daylight in the heart of one of the most heavily watched areas of the Syrian capital. The Syrian authorities delay the announcement of the killing and make no comment upon it.
Rumors of who might be responsible abound.
The regime of Bashar Assad has shown itself to be an enthusiastic practitioner of the “strategy of tension” in Lebanon, in Iraq and elsewhere over the last halfdecade.
It appears that someone or other is currently keen on demonstrating to the Syrian leader that this can also be a game played by two sides.
The writer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.