Ousting Bashar al-Assad
Israel’s possible reaction to the ongoing deterioration in Syria
One hour before sunrise, the heat was already scorching. In the late summer, there was no hope of a relieving rain. Yet, fast flowing air cooled the motorbikes, making the trip sufferable. Half hidden in its morning gloom, the City of Damascus could already be seen. On each motorbike there were two men dressed up in a mishmash of colors and shapes, vaguely fitting Middle Eastern décor rules. They could be Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians, or even Israelis; yet they all were of similar size, as if this had been a parameter in their selection. Some of them had a keffiyeh scarf tied around their neck. An unusual knot apparently holding the garment was placed on the left side of the neck, identifying them as team leaders. One of them had the knot on the right side; this meant he was the commander of the entire operation. At this point they moved in “operational silence;” they couldn’t communicate even with the two large IDF intelligence bases behind them, on the Golan Heights. Yet, the dramatic caravan was being filmed from there right now. In their eyes, Damascus was practically part of Israel. Yet, there was no need to say anything. Everything had been planned down to the smallest detail. On the agreed junction, the four teams separated. To a casual watcher, everything would have seemed almost normal, except for the odd packages some of the motorbikes carried. Elongated black bundles were carefully balanced, one on each side of these vehicles. The metal front-end resembled hollow-point projectiles; yet, they had elaborate fasteners surrounding their front end. The casual watcher would nod his head in appreciation, and immediately dismiss his early-morning foolishness. You don’t put fasteners on a missile head. Well, except if you plan to fire it horizontally.
The soldiers approaching Damascus were professionals. They didn’t care about politics. They didn’t care about good and evil. They had been instructed to assassinate by their commanders and they would do that, no matter what. Yet, due to the nature of the target, they had no choice but to understand the political considerations.
For a long time, Israel and Syria had peaceful relations. Formally at war, they respected their borders, fastidiously keeping an enforced quiet along them. This situation changed after the beginning of the Arab Spring in early 2011. Since then, Western regimes and their allies have been openly attempting to achieve regime change in Damascus. On November 20, 2011, Russia blamed the West for creating and seeking provocations in Syria. Moreover, evidence has emerged for the US-backing for regime change in Syria. In mid-April 2011, WikiLeaks revealed that the US had funded $6 million to a London-based opposition group Movement for Justice and Development since 2006 to operate the Barada TV satellite channel and finance other activities inside Syria. Many other testimonies exist, including a violent Israeli provocation. On June 5, 2011, Naksa Day, the 44th anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War, was commemorated. The events included demonstrations on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, mainly near the destroyed city of Quneitra and near the Druze village of Majdal Shams. Syria said on Monday that 23 people were killed in the rally. Official Syrian news agency SANA quoted Health Minister Wael al-Halki as saying the death toll included a woman and a child, adding that another 350 people suffered gunshot wounds. UN chief Ban Ki-moon said live Israeli fire had caused casualties and UN monitors were seeking to confirm facts. The IDF said that since all the casualties were on the Syrian side of the border it was unable to provide an exact count, but didn’t deny its shooting. The Syrian president allowed Syrian citizens to be massacred by a formal enemy and took no action; part of the ongoing internal violence against the al-Assad regime may be attributed to this failure.
Yet, Syria is not Libya. In the second year of the revolt, al-Assad still holds power. At a certain point, a personal attack on him was decided by the Western powers. In the July 18, 2012, explosion at the National Security Headquarters in Damascus, four high-ranking government ministers were killed. It was just a matter of time until Israel attempted to end the war by killing the president. Thinking himself back in Entebbe, Netanyahu eventually signed the order.
On December 15, 2010, the Lebanese Army announced that it had dismantled two Israeli espionage sites watching Beirut from Jabel Snin and Jabel Baruch. Two weeks before that, Lebanon filed a formal complaint at the UN Security Council against Israel after the existence of the devices was exposed by the Hezbollah. The devices included watching equipment and signals sending and receiving communications gear; it could be activated from afar. It was hidden under fake rocks in a mountainous area. Readers of The Cross of Bethlehem could finally find a collateral corroboration of my description there of “Kingfisher,” a spinoff from Sayeret Matkal. This is a special commando unit specializing in the placement of electronic beamers, cameras and other espionage equipment beyond the Israeli borders. “Beamer” is an electronic device used for guiding certain type of bombs to a target. Riding 500cc motorbikes, which can be attached to Cobra helicopters, it is active in Lebanon and Syria. The later has never released information on the beamers in its territory. Despite the danger in the placement of this equipment Israel favors this method since it saves costly flights; the lives of the soldiers involved are of secondary concern.
Kingfisher and Sayeret Matkal routinely cross the border near Quneitra in order to perform similar activities within Syria. That’s one of the reasons for the extraordinary size of an IDF intelligence unit at Tel Avital (the antennas atop the extinct volcano in the picture); that’s also the reason for other similar bases in the area, which can be clearly seen from the ground. Israel doesn’t want citizens in the area, these can become witnesses to the routine violations of the Syrian territory by Israel. In the events described in this article, Kingfisher and Sayeret Matkal would have been the first choices of the General Command. The first is too small for such an operation; the latter would have provided highly-trained support members to the operation.
The Odd Package
The odd bombs alongside the motorbikes had not been developed by Israel. They had been adapted from GBU-28 Bunker Buster provided to Israel by the USA since 2009. Israel’s policy of technological adaptations is a direct result of a decision taken by the Director General of the Ministry of Defense Shimon Peres (currently Israel’s president) in 1958. The isotope research unit of the Weizmann Institute was where the first efforts of Israel to develop nuclear technologies took place, disguised as pure science research. Then, the Negev Nuclear Research Center was created and with it a conflict: How should the research be performed? Where: Rehovot or Dimona? Who would get the prestige, resources and salaries? The solution of the problem was unexpected. Instead of developing the technologies from zero—as the Weizmann Institute proposed—Peres decided to appropriate as much as possible from other sources, letting the scientists just adapt the technologies to the specific needs defined by the Israeli Administration. He claimed the state was too small and poor to develop the whole range of technologies needed. Since then, the Mossad and Israeli industries are occupied day and night in getting technologies from abroad, while the scientists in Dimona, Rehovot, and other academic powerhouses, are busy adapting them.
Certain developments require massive installations and significant additional research. Others just need minor adaptations in order to enable them to successfully interface with other technological gadgets in their new environment. In the latter category enter many items used by commando units and Mossad agents. For them, the IDF has a unit mockingly called the Mr. Q. Unit, after the James Bond’s movies; Mr. Q. prepared Bond’s gadgets. Located in Ramat Gan—within Gush Dan, Tel Aviv’s Metropolitan Area—it can modify everything, including a bunker-buster device to operate horizontally. Instead of the kinetic energy used by these weapons to initiate the bunker perforation process, it used an ingenious series of directional charges. After all, the National Security Headquarters in Damascus were just buildings.
The IDF General Command knew this was a risky operation. The odds that such a large force could arrive at Damascus unseen were slim. Their only chance was if the Syrian command was so busy elsewhere that it wouldn’t have an opportunity to respond on time. Accordingly, the IDF began a series of carefully planned clashes with the Syrian army. The border between Israel and Lebanon is based on the 1949 Armistice Agreement. Israel had several times ignited tensions there along an area known as the Shabaa Farms on the former border between Lebanon and Syria. This time, an IDF platoon openly entered the area and erected a tiny military base. In two days, the area became the site of a bitter fight between the armies. In addition, IDF fighters flew repeatedly over Syrian territory, though not in the Damascus area. The Syrian air force was directed in such a way to other areas of the country. In parallel, some of the forces that had entered overland were not part of the operation, but a decoy. They would attack the Presidential Palace half an hour before the beginning of the real attack.
Since the attack on the National Security Headquarters, Bashar al-Assad had made this complex his headquarters. If he were a naval officer, this could be blamed on the odd belief of such officers that bombs don’t fall twice on the same spot (this is the origin of a naval defensive tactic that places a ship on the exact spot where a bomb hit). However, Bashar al-Assad had made his decision as a symbol of his power and also for practical reasons. The area was much better protected than the Presidential Palace. That is why Kingfisher had brought the strangely adapted bunker buster.
Many of the weapons favored by Israel feature odd directional characteristics. Until 2006, the fact that Merkava tanks were heavily defended on their sides, but poorly so at their top and bottom was a national secret. That year, the knowledge leaked and the incursions of Israeli tanks into Gaza were easily blocked by regular landmines. On the other hand, strike forces favor entering from the side by breaking walls. This makes defense from inside a very complex task. The most famous instance was the 2004 Arafat’s Siege at the Palestinian Authority Mukata Complex in Ramallah. The IDF was ready to act against Arafat from across a 3m thick wall, though this attack didn’t materialize.
In Damascus, Israel wanted to breach an entrance to the complex. It didn’t have accurate intelligence regarding the exact position of Bashar al-Assad, but this mattered little. They had enough bombs to open any obstructive wall along the way, and Bashar was an easy target. Like his father, he was very tall, and had a narrow, elongated head. He could be recognized immediately.
The soldiers entered the compound finding little resistance. The early attack on the palace had caused mayhem. The corridors resembled the models they had studied at home. Then, along one of them, the first soldier saw the target’s back. Without questioning his orders, without considering good and evil, he raised a small hand weapon and fired a soft-point bullet.