The Spies Inside Damascus

The Mossad's secret war on the Syrian WMD machine.


On Aug. 20, 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama declared that if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began shifting around or using his chemical weapons, Obama would consider that "a red line." The implication was that such a move would lead to American intervention in Syria. Some officials from the Israeli Foreign Ministry believed that Obama drew the line because he believed it would never be crossed. If that was his assumption, he made it based, in part, on assessments received from the Israeli intelligence services, which have waged a multidecade clandestine campaign to strip Assad of his deadliest weapons -- and which also have emerged as the United States' primary partners in collecting information on Middle Eastern regimes.

On Aug. 20, 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama declared that if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began shifting around or using his chemical weapons, Obama would consider that "a red line." The implication was that such a move would lead to American intervention in Syria. Some officials from the Israeli Foreign Ministry believed that Obama drew the line because he believed it would never be crossed. If that was his assumption, he made it based, in part, on assessments received from the Israeli intelligence services, which have waged a multidecade clandestine campaign to strip Assad of his deadliest weapons — and which also have emerged as the United States’ primary partners in collecting information on Middle Eastern regimes.

According to two former high-ranking military intelligence officials with whom I had spoken recently, Israeli intelligence agencies believed at the time that Assad would not use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and would keep his chemical arsenal as a bargaining chip to be traded in exchange for political asylum for himself, his loyal wife, and his close associates, if necessary. Israel was wrong.

On March 10, 2013, Israeli intelligence sources began reporting that the Syrian regime had made use of chemical weapons. A number of different and cross-checked sources produced this information. Among them: sources that eavesdropped on the Syrian army’s tactical frequencies and surveillance satellites that monitored movement out of a bunker known to protect chemical weapons.

Israel shared its findings with the United States, but Washington would not acknowledge those findings’ veracity. It was clear to the Israelis that the Americans saw those findings as a hot potato that the president was in no mood to hold. Without grasping the deep political significance of publicizing this material (or perhaps doing so intentionally to put pressure on Washington), Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, the head of the Aman, the Israeli military intelligence corps’ research division, stated clearly in an April 23 speech at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons on its citizens.

This utterance angered and embarrassed the U.S. administration. Washington stuttered for a few days and demanded clarifications from Israel. In the end, and following a report submitted to the United Nations by Britain and France, the Obama administration had to admit that the information was in fact correct. Since then, to avoid similar commotions, Aman officers are forbidden to appear in public conferences.

Either way, the intelligence coordination between Israel and the United States has not suffered, and Israel continues to share the vast amounts of information that it has about Syria with the United States. Published reports credit Israel with giving the CIA, as the Wall Street Journal put it, "intelligence from inside an elite special Syrian unit that oversees Mr. Assad’s chemical weapons" after the massive Aug. 21 sarin attack outside Damascus.

"We have a very extensive knowledge of what is happening in Syria. Our ability to collect information there is profound. Israel is the eyes and ears, sometimes exclusively, sometimes as complementary aid, to what the U.S. intelligence is able or unable to collect itself," Maj. Gen. Uri Sagi, Israel’s former chief of military intelligence, told me on Sept. 19. While the threat of an American attack on Syria — and a possible Syrian counterattack on Israel — has subsided for the moment, the Israeli-American efforts to penetrate the Assad regime continue. This is a history of those efforts.

American and Israeli spies have long been partners. "Information we collected, especially by Unit 8200 [Israel’s eavesdropping corps], has always been of the highest value to the NSA [U.S. National Security Agency] and other U.S. intelligence agencies," Sagi noted. A top-secret memorandum, recently revealed by the Guardian, shows that the NSA passes along raw intercepts to Unit 8200. But the partnership hasn’t always produced results. Regarding the 1990-1991 Gulf War, for instance, "one must honestly admit that when it came to Iraq back then, both Americans and Israelis had very little information to share," Sagi said.

At the time, the joint effort to spy on Syria’s weapons of mass destruction wasn’t much better.

In March 1990, North Korea’s premier visited Damascus, and the two states signed a secret deal for military and technological cooperation that centered on the supply of Scud C missiles and launchers to Syria. In early February 1991, the first consignment of some 30 missiles was shipped to the Syrian port of Latakia. The NSA, Israeli intelligence later learned, was aware that something was going on, but Washington refrained from informing Tel Aviv because the Americans feared that the Israelis would try to intercept the shipment and start yet another Middle Eastern brawl.

However, Israel had sources of its own. The Mossad — Israel’s national intelligence agency — was keeping an eye on the ship. Agents of the Mossad’s Caesarea division, who are trained to penetrate Arab countries, were waiting in Morocco for the vessel that had set sail from North Korea and had docked in a number of African ports en route to the Mediterranean Sea and Latakia. Two Mossad operatives, working undercover as tourists, successfully dove under the ship and attached a powerful transponder to it. An Israeli F-15 fighter jet was supposed to launch a missile to hone in on the beacon signal on the ship and blow the vessel to smithereens. In the end, however, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir decided to call the operation off out of a fear that it would spark a major conflagration in the Middle East due to the fact that the Gulf War was under way.

In retrospect, two former Israeli intelligence officials with whom I spoke in early September — one from the Mossad and one from the Aman — expressed regret at Shamir’s decision.

"If we were to make a point at that time," one of them said, "that we will not allow Syria to further develop missiles to deliver WMD, we might not be threatened today by a huge arsenal of missiles able to strike any place in Israel with chemical agents."

For now, the Israeli assessment is that Assad will not attack Israel, even if he is attacked by U.S. forces. Israel, however, is preparing for a counterstrike. To some degree, Israel is already involved, as it is helping the United States to collect intelligence on Syria.

For a long time, Israel saw Syria as its prime enemy. Abutting its northeastern border with a huge military, it had fought four bloody wars against the Jewish state (in 1948, 1967, 1973, and 1982). "For many years, until the civil war broke out, the Syrians were the last army to pose a serious threat to Israel, and therefore the investment of our intelligence resources in that direction was enormous," said Sagi, who served as the head of Israel’s military intelligence from 1991 to 1995 and as a special advisor on intelligence to the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from 2006 to 2010.

Continuously, Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, recruited agents in the Syrian military and government and planted its own operatives under false identities in Syria to carry out various missions. Meanwhile, Israeli military intelligence collected material on Syria’s defense systems.

Over the years, the Syrians were able to catch some of these spies. Most known is the story of Eli Cohen, who was sent to Syria in the early 1960s under the guise of a Syrian merchant who returned to his homeland as a very wealthy man after years in South America. Cohen made excellent contacts with senior military and intelligence officials in Syria. During wild parties that he held in his fancy flat right across the street from the general staff headquarters in Damascus, he drew from them many state secrets. Cohen’s Mossad case officer, Gedaliah Khalaf,  told me how Cohen transmitted the latest information on a daily basis, including quite a bit of gossip from Syria’s high echelon, using a Morse-code machine that was hidden in his apartment.

David Kimche, a Mossad officer and later deputy chief of the organization, described how the Mossad passed some of the information obtained by Cohen and other sources to the CIA. "We wanted to prove to the American intelligence that we are an important asset in the Middle East and are able to collect information they cannot," said Kimche, in a 2002 interview. "I thought we could be the long arm of the United States’ espionage agencies in Africa and Asia," said Isser Harel, the second chief of Mossad, in a 2001 interview.

Particularly important in this context is the involvement of Unit 8200, which is responsible for intercepting enemy communications. Utilizing thousands of soldiers, it monitors messages, breaks codes, and translates, processes, and analyzes the material. In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel achieved a fast-as-lightning, decisive victory over Syria and Egypt largely thanks to the high-quality information supplied by Unit 8200 and other intelligence branches.

At that time Israel also unveiled, for the first time, the capabilities of Unit 8200. *Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was losing the war and lost his air force during its first hours, lied to Jordan’s King Hussein about the real situation in order to persuade him to enter combat. Unit 8200 was listening to the conversation, and Israel, to further embarrass the Arab countries, decided to publish it.

In the war of October 1973, Syria took Israel by surprise, but despite this, it could not win the war. Despite generous aid from the Soviet Union in the form of warplanes and anti-aircraft systems, Syrians planes did not succeed in penetrating Israeli airspace or gaining air superiority.

After this 1973 war, the Soviet Union agreed to supply Syria with a few dozen surface-to-surface missiles of the Scud B type with a range of 300 kilometers. This was the beginning of Syria’s missile command, which is today engaged in fighting the rebels in the civil war raging in that country.

The 1973 war had another result: Amos Levinberg, an officer of Unit 8200 with a very high security clearance and access to innumerable secrets, was taken prisoner by the Syrians. He had a phenomenal memory, but he also suffered from claustrophobia. The Syrians managed to convince him that their offensive has succeeded and Israel had been destroyed, causing him to tell them everything he knew. The content of his interrogations were conveyed directly to Hafez al-Assad, who was amazed. Israel had been listening in to almost all the Syrian military transmissions traffic, he learned, including those between Assad himself and his divisional commanders. It also emerged that the Israelis had penetrated Syrian territory and had installed listening devices that were connected to all of Syria’s communications cables and relayed all information collected from them to Unit 8200 bases.

The confessions of the "singing officer," as he was called in Israel, caused immense damage to Israeli intelligence, whose secret methods and devices had been exposed. When he was returned to Israel in a prisoner exchange, one of his commanders even publicly suggested he commit suicide. The Syrians were convinced that they had made Israel blind and mainly deaf for the coming years.

They were wrong. On April 1, 1978, maintenance work was being carried out on the main telephone cable between Damascus and Jordan. Buried deep in the ground, the workers discovered a strange device. Military and secret service personnel who were called in were sure that this was another sophisticated Israeli listening instrument and tried to dig beneath it to remove it from the ground. But it was booby-trapped and it blew up, killing 12 of them. Syria submitted an official complaint against Israel to the U.N. Security Council. Over the years, the Syrians kept on finding similar devices buried deep in the ground. On these subsequent occasions, they took care not to handle them and instead called in agents of the GRU, the Soviet Army’s intelligence arm, who had special equipment for dealing with booby traps. But they too made mistakes, and four of them were killed in one blast.

In June 1982, Syria once again suffered a bitter defeat when approximately 100 of its planes were downed during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon without Syria managing to shoot down even one Israeli aircraft. This was due to, among several reasons, superb intelligence that Israel had collected about the Syrian air force and its anti-aircraft batteries. After the war, Assad, a former commander of the Syrian air force, began allocating his resources to other options. He drastically cut the budget of Syria’s "regular" army and put the money saved into the rehabilitation of the air force and the acquisition of missiles.

So, in 1984, Syria signed a deal with China for a supply of M-9 missiles that were fueled by a solid propellant and had a longer range than the Scuds previously purchased from the Soviet Union. The deal, however, was canceled thanks to heavy pressure from the United States, itself under heavy pressure from Israel, which had obtained intelligence about the impending deal from a high-ranking agent in Damascus.

In 1990, the Syrian 9th Mechanized Division joined the U.S.-led coalition forces against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War as it was important to Washington that Arab armies be among its partners in the war against Saddam, at least symbolically.

In the end, this division did not fight, but its mere presence on the battlefield was of enormous significance. The commander of the division — together with the Syrian chief of staff, Gen. Hikmat al-Shihabi — returned home to Damascus full of admiration for the "American mighty war machine" to which they had been exposed. They were particularly deeply impressed by the accurate munitions that the U.S. Air Force had made massive use of, some of which was being deployed in combat for the first time.

In the wake of their reports, Assad convened a series of meetings in the second half of 1991, meetings that he presided over in person and were attended by the heads of the Syrian armed forces, intelligence, and the country’s agency for the development of armaments, the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC). The content of the meetings was obtained by Israeli intelligence.

Assad informed his people that as far as he was concerned, the basic assumption must be that if the Americans possessed this impressive arsenal, the Israelis must also have similar items. In other words, the technological and qualitative gap between the Syrian and Israeli armies was now even wider than before. Assad declared that, in his opinion, there was no way of closing the gap between the Syrian army and the IDF in the near future.

Thus, Assad decided to invest in a powerful missile arm — a division of the air force, but under his direct command and led mainly by loyal Alawites like him. Assad also decided that the missiles that the arm deployed would be tipped with lethal chemical warheads.

The investment in missiles was based on the assumption presented by Assad at the meetings that the Syrian air force was not capable of penetrating Israel’s air defenses, but showers of missiles laced with chemical warheads could do so.

In the wake of the decision, a series of deals was signed with North Korea. At first, the production of the missiles was closely overseen by teams of North Korean engineers, but later on the Syrians managed to acquire the requisite know-how themselves.

In early July 2001, a new Israeli radar system detected the firing of a Scud from northern Syria’s Aleppo area. With a range of 700 kilometers, the Scud D enabled the Syrians to deploy a broad, flexible missile network covering Israel’s entire area, Lebanon, and parts of Turkey and Jordan. Before the Syrian civil war broke out, the Syrians had all the classes of Scud missiles and their launchers. They have used some against the rebels and against civilians, and it is not clear how many they still have in their arsenals today.

In parallel to their acquisition of missiles in the 1990s, the Syrians launched a large-scale drive to obtain chemical weapons.

At first their bombs were filled with sarin gas, made to be dropped from aircraft. Later on, warheads for Syria’s Scud missiles were developed. Israeli intelligence sources say that most of the equipment and know-how for the manufacture of these weapons came from the Soviet Union, China, and Czechoslovakia, along with the assistance of private individuals and companies in Western Europe and Japan.

In the mid-1990s, Syria succeeded in the manufacture of the most toxic chemical agent, VX. This agent is so hazardous that it consists of two separate substances that are kept apart inside a missile warhead and combine only when the warhead hits the ground, creating an extremely lethal neurotoxic agent. Unlike other chemical warfare elements, VX does not disperse in a short time. The know-how for the manufacture of this weapon was supplied by Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s advisor on chemical weapons disarmament, Gen. Anatoly Kuntsevich.

Under the guise of a routine working visit to Syria, and as part of the good military relations that had remained between Syria and Russia (with the Russians still maintaining intelligence bases in the Golan Heights and in northern Syria), Kuntsevich began forming personal links with the heads of the Syrian regime. He received huge amounts of money from them, and in turn, he supplied them with the know-how and some of the equipment, which he acquired in Europe, for the manufacture of VX weapons.

In 1998, the Mossad learned details of some of these transactions. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak tried to warn the heads of the government in Moscow about the general’s doings in meetings he held with them in 1999, but to no avail. It seemed as though Yeltsin could not, or would not, intervene. When the Israelis saw that their pressure was not working, Mossad agents in Europe were assigned to pose as independent researchers working on the background for a documentary film on gas warfare. They repeatedly contacted high-ranking officials in the Kremlin and the Russian army and said that according to their information, Kuntsevich was selling chemical warfare agents to Syria. The goal was to scare Moscow into believing that the information was about to be made public. Unfortunately, this didn’t work either, and apart from a stern warning, nothing was done to curb the general.

On April 3, 2002, Kuntsevich died mysteriously while on a flight from Damascus to Moscow. Also mysterious is the inscription on his headstone in Moscow, which states his death date as March 29. Syrian intelligence is convinced that the Mossad was behind his demise. Israeli officials have not commented on such allegations.

Historically, Israel has devoted many resources to keeping a watch on the Scientific Studies and Research Center, the main Syrian agency in charge of the effort to produce chemical and biological weapons. The SSRC was identified by U.S. intelligence as the front organization for the Syrian defense establishment, and the U.S. Treasury Department consequently imposed financial sanctions.

With over 10,000 personnel, the SSRC is responsible for operating the main facilities in Syria where chemical weapons are manufactured and stored, according to Israeli military intelligence estimates. The main site is at al-Safir, in northern Syria, where the chemical weapons are assembled and stored and some of the Scud missiles and launchers are kept.

Al-Safir was one of the prime targets for the possible American attack proposed in late August. Now that such an attack has been called off, it will be a site of enormous interest to international weapons inspectors. Al-Safir is an enormous facility, covering dozens of square kilometers and comprising several sections, surrounded by patrol roads and high double fences.

On July 25, 2007, at al-Safir, a horrendous breakdown occurred in the production line of VX warhead components, a line that was constructed by the Syrians and North Koreans. One of the pipes feeding substances to the assembly line burst, and within seconds the entire line became a blazing inferno. The blast was so powerful that doors were blown off the building and the noxious gases escaped and spread across the entire al-Safir facility. The initial explosion killed 15 Syrians and, according to reports reaching the Mossad, 10 Iranian engineers at the site. An unknown number of people were seriously wounded, and some 200 are believed to have been affected. The rescue and first-aid forces permanently stationed at al-Safir were unable to handle all the casualties, and the authorities had to call in outside firefighting and rescue services, violating their goal of maintaining maximum secrecy at the site.

Investigations carried out after the incident by a special team appointed by the Syrian president reached the unequivocal conclusion that this was an intentional act of sabotage, though to this day footprints leading to the perpetrators have not been traced. A senior Israeli cabinet minister speaking with me under terms of not identifying him would not refer directly to the al-Safir explosion, but would only say with a wink and a nod that it was "a marvelous mishap."

In July 2000, Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad, as president of Syria and introduced changes and reforms of his own in the country’s defense establishment. He appointed Gen. Mohammed Suleiman to head up all special projects, including running, from the presidential palace, Syria’s chemical arms arsenal.

Assad and Suleiman used the existing relationship with North Korea to reach a deal for the supply of a nuclear reactor, with the aim of using it to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Assad and Suleiman managed to conceal the existence of the entire plant from the Israelis. They did it mainly by issuing orders not to transmit any project information electronically and in effect "went back in time," as stated in an investigation conducted by Israeli military intelligence, with everything printed out as a hard copy and sent to its destination by couriers on motorcycles. When the Israelis came to identify the network that was built under their noses, in much delay, it was nicknamed by military intelligence as "General Suleiman’s Shadow Army."

Without any connection to the project, about which the Israelis knew nothing for five years, Mossad agents managed to trail a senior Syrian official who traveled to London in January 2007. While a female operative of the Mossad’s Rainbow unit occupied him in the bar of his hotel, his room was broken into, and the contents of two USB flash drives in a bag next to his laptop were copied.

The stolen material was found to contain photographs of the reactor under construction. The Israelis were startled by the findings, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert urgently conveyed them to U.S. President George W. Bush. The CIA and NSA conducted their own investigations and reached the conclusion that the information was accurate. Olmert asked Bush to bomb the plant, and when the negative reply was received, he ordered the Israeli Air Force to destroy it in September 2007.

Suleiman, before he was assassinated by Israeli special operations forces in August 2008, also encouraged Assad to strongly intensify links with the militant group Hezbollah. These ties were channeled mainly between Suleiman and Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s military supremo, who was taken out in a February 2008 Mossad operation in Damascus.

In February 2010, Israeli intelligence identified a convoy of trucks leaving the al-Safir facility and crossing the border into Lebanon. The Israelis believed the cargo that the trucks carried consisted of Scud missile components on their way to Hezbollah. For Israel, a red line had been crossed, and according to a source working with the Israeli prime minister, it was suggested to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel should bomb the convoy. Netanyahu ultimately decided not to attack, and instead the information was conveyed to the Americans. On March 1, 2010, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, was summoned urgently to the State Department, where he was informed that the United States expected Syria to cease arming Hezbollah because of the very real risk of war.

The civil war that broke out in Syria some two and a half years ago has profoundly altered the balance of power in the Middle East. History plays strange games. If a deal to sequester and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons isn’t brokered at the United Nations, it could once again become possible that the huge missile force built by the Assad family will be the target of an attack by the "mighty American war machine," as General Shihabi, the Syrian chief of staff, had admiringly described it on his return from the Persian Gulf in 1991. 

Indeed, many generations of technologies, resources, training, and quality of personnel separate the two forces, and that gap was true with regard to the Syrian army even before it was stretching its forces out in all directions in the attempt to stop the current uprising. The gap today is even more significant. The Syrian army has been worn down in the tough fighting of the last two-plus years.

Today, as the fighting rages, Israel enjoys the best intelligence on Syria in Western hands, and it is sharing that intelligence with the United States in advance of a possible attack. The Americans are also getting information from two other allies that have common frontiers with Syria: Jordan and Turkey, both of which gather information themselves and allow the NSA to set up listening posts on their territory.

Israel is well aware of the weakness of the Syrian army. Highly secretive intelligence collected by Israeli espionage agencies during the last year dealing with the transfer of weapons, including Scud parts and advanced Russian shore-to-sea Yakhont (SS-N-26) missiles, from SSRC installations across Syria to Hezbollah was received with less hesitation by Netanyahu. A number of Israeli higher-ups, including the prime minister, have repeatedly declared that Israel will not agree to the transfer of such weapons to Lebanon, and each time that a consignment has been identified, it has been destroyed with pinpoint missile attacks. Israel has not admitted it was behind the six such attacks so far, but American intelligence sources and Syrian announcements made it explicitly clear that it was the Israeli Air Force that fired the missiles.

"Israel and other countries are following events in Syria with all the intelligence-gathering means at their disposal, and with great apprehension," Israeli President Shimon Peres told me in an unpublished excerpt from an interview for the New York Times Magazine this year. "If the Syrians dare to touch their chemical weapons and aim them at us or at innocent civilians, I have no doubt that the world as well as Israel will take decisive and immediate action. No less important — Assad is liable to transfer the chemical weapons to Hezbollah, which from our point of view will constitute crossing a red line. It is incumbent upon Israel to prevent such a thing from happening, and it will take firm military action to do so."

*Correction (Sept. 20): This article incorrectly stated that Hafez al-Assad was president during the 1967 Six-Day War. This error has been deleted. (Return to article.)

Ronen Bergman is the senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. Twitter: @ronenbergman

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