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.)