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
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.
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
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.
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.
time, the joint effort to spy on Syria's weapons of mass destruction wasn't
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
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
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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.)