The deaths of five nuclear scientists Sunday in an ambush outside Damascus has raised anew suspicions about whether Israel is conducting an assassination campaign intended to blunt Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
At least one of the men was an Iranian nuclear technician, according to Syrian state television, members of the internal security wing of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence in that country.
Rami Abdurrahman, the observatory’s director, described the dead as “five nuclear engineers” in a Facebook post and said they worked at a scientific research center “near the neighborhood of Barzeh, northern Damascus.” The Britain-based observatory, which works with a network of informants in Syria, has a reputation for accurate reports on events there.
Syrian government officials, speaking to government-friendly television stations, later confirmed that at least one of the men was an Iranian “scientific consultant,” but they released no other details on the nationalities of the other four men killed.
Both Iran and North Korea have provided Syria with technical nuclear expertise in the past, most notably at a secret reactor facility that the Israeli air force destroyed in a surprise attack in northern Syria in 2007. That previously unknown reactor facility was being built with the technical assistance of Iranian and North Korean scientists, according to statements made after the attack by American and Israeli intelligence officials. The facility, which U.S. and Israeli officials said hid a Syrian attempt to start a secret nuclear weapons program, was rendered unusable in the strike and later was dismantled by the Syrians.
“We can confirm that five scientific experts were martyred by terrorists as part of the ongoing plots of the Zionist entity,” a Hezbollah internal security commander said via instant messaging from Beirut. He insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to reporters. “This follows the pattern of the enemy who backs and controls terrorists inside Syria in a program to hurt the resistance axis.”
The commander also cited the assassination in December 2013 of Hassan Laqqis, a high-ranking Hezbollah official who reportedly was tied to the group’s technical programs, including advanced drone and missile technology, according to accounts in Hezbollah-controlled media outlets shortly after his death. He was killed by unknown gunmen outside a suburban Beirut safe house.
An internal Hezbollah and Lebanese army investigation later determined the assassins had infiltrated Lebanon by sea, staked out the parking lot of the apartment complex, shot Laqqis at close range with silenced pistols and departed the country by sea in an operation that took a matter of hours, a hallmark of any of a number of similar assassinations of Islamist and Palestinian figures attributed to Israel over the last four decades.
In Sunday’s attack, the five men were killed by machine-gun fire while riding in a commuter van on the outskirts of Damascus. The Hezbollah official said he believed the attack was carried out by Syrian rebels working for Israel.
“We have long determined that the Zionist entity works closely with a number of the so-called rebel groups for anti-Hezbollah and anti-Syrian regime operations,” he said.
Since the start of the Syrian civil war, Israeli aircraft have launch at least three airstrikes on Syrian military hardware that Israel feared was being transferred to Hezbollah. Those targets have included advanced missile parts. In May 2013, suspected Israeli aircraft bombed a Syrian research center near the border with Lebanon, where advanced missile technology was under development. Iran, Hezbollah and Syria cooperate closely on the development of long-range weapons, which compose the bulk of Hezbollah’s deterrent capability against Israel.
Syria has long denied having any nuclear weapons program, but it is reported to have a small Chinese-made reactor for peaceful research purposes. It is unclear if that reactor is located in Barzeh.
The Barzeh facility itself came under attack in July 2013, when a group described by state television as “jihadists” fired at the facility with rocket-propelled grenades as staff members were departing work, killing at least six and wounding 19, according to Syrian state television at the time.
Israel, which maintains that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons capability, has recently criticized efforts by President Barack Obama to reach a compromise with the Iranian regime that would allow it to have a peaceful nuclear program and would lift economic sanctions in exchange for Iran renouncing efforts to develop a weapon.
A least five Iranian scientists tied to Iran’s nuclear program have been killed in recent years in incidents in or near Tehran, the Iranian capital. Iran has blamed Israel’s Mossad spy agency for the deaths; the Israeli government has denied involvement.