On Sunday, August 5, a Syrian scientist who led a research facility alleged to be part of the country’s chemical weapons program was killed in a car bombing. According to pro-government Syrian newspaper al-Watan, Dr. Aziz Asber, who directed the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre in the city of Masyaf near Hama, was killed when an explosion targeted his car, killing him and his driver moments after the vehicle left the doctor’s home. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) also confirmed that the incident had taken place as described.
Asber was certainly an important figure in the Syrian hierarchy. He had free access to the highest levels of the Syrian and Iranian governments, and his own security detail. More importantly, he was charged with building some of Syria’s most important weapons platforms.
Everyone interested in the Syrian conflict would like to know who is responsible. A Syrian rebel group, the Abu Amara Brigades, linked to the Tahrir al-Sham armed militants, claimed responsibility for the bombing. A Reuters report related that Abu Amara “released a statement on their Telegram online channel that said they ‘planted explosive devices’ which detonated and killed Asber.”
Despite the group’s quickness in taking the blame, it is very unlikely that Abu Amara or any other ragtag militant group in Syria is capable of pulling off the hit job. As noted, Asber was well protected. Planning a car bombing takes precision planning, and also not getting caught. Although the details of the explosion aren’t yet known, either the car ran over an explosive device, which means the attackers would have had to plant it, and know Asber’s planned route, or the bomb was inserted into or secured on the vehicle itself, even more of a complex feat. The signs point to the work of professionals.
The lack of evidence at this point has lead to the expected accusation when it comes to assassinations in the Middle East.
The same al-Watan source—incidentally, an outlet owned by President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf—claimed that none other than Israel’s Mossad espionage agency was behind the attack.
While there is no direct evidence for this quite yet, and Israeli officials have already denied any connection, admittedly, it is not far-fetched that Israel would have taken the initiative in offing this important Syrian weapons developer.
Asbar was one of Syria’s most important rocket scientists, in charge of acquiring for Syria an arsenal of precision-guided missiles, weapons that could in theory be launched with pinpoint accuracy against Israeli cities hundreds of miles away. The chemical weapons program he led is a top-secret development unit called Sector 4. When Asber was killed, he was reportedly hard at work building an underground weapons factory, one that would replace the facility destroyed by Israel in September of last year.
Furthermore, precision car bombs have been used by Israel in the not-too-distant past. The series of killings targeting Iranian scientists, almost certainly orchestrated by Israeli intelligence, was executed by high-powered magnetized explosives attached to vehicles.
If the Mossad was in fact involved, the implications would be immense. It would mean Israel was successful in penetrating deep into Syrian territory, taking out a high-value target that was being actively guarded by both Syria and Iran.
As far as developing reports surrounding this incident, the most likely outcome is that no one will be able to confirm exactly who was behind Dr. Asber’s death. In any case, the fact is that someone, somehow was able to get to their target. This fact adds an important element to the future of the Damascus-Tehran co-op in Syria. Targeted killings and defending against them will likely become a major factor in the fray.