A Syrian military intelligence officer in charge of the army’s “Palestine Department” was assassinated Saturday in the country’s northwest, Arabic media reported.
Ahmad Issa Habib was said to have been shot in the head by unknown assailants in the village of Baarin, west of the city of Hama. Some reports said he was killed in his car, others that he was hit at his home.
According to Israel’s Army Radio, quoting Syrian opposition sources, Habib was the point man in President Bashar Assad’s regime “responsible for the struggle against Israel.”
There was no word on the identity of the shooters or a possible motive.
The reported killing came exactly two weeks after the assassination of a top Syrian chemical weapons and rocket scientist in nearby Masyaf, which some have blamed on Israel’s Mossad spy agency.
Aziz Azbar was killed when his car exploded in Masyaf late on August 4.
Syrian media blamed Israel for that killing, and a senior official from a Middle East intelligence agency later told the New York Times Israel was behind the attack and said his own intelligence agency had been informed of the Israeli operation.
According to the report, Israel believed that Azbar was leading a classified weapons development program called Sector 4 at the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, and was busy re-building an underground weapons factory to replace the one said destroyed by Israel last year.
Azbar was working alongside Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite al-Quds Force and enjoyed high-level access to both the Syrian and Iranian governments, the New York Times said.
Azbar and his team were working to begin mass-producing precision-guided missiles by retrofitting SM600 Tishreen rockets. They were also working on a solid-fuel plant for missiles and rockets, a safer alternative to liquid fuel, the report said. The Tishreen is a Syrian version of the Iranian Fateh-110, a missile with a range of 200 kilomenters (125 miles.)
Israel’s Hadashot TV news said he was in charge of a project improving the range and accuracy of the regime’s Scud missiles. Reports have also indicated an Iranian missile operation at the site.
The intelligence official also told the Times that Azbar had for years been active in the Assad regime’s chemical-weapons production program and was also involved in coordinating Iranian and Hezbollah activities in Syria.
The Scientific Research and Studies Center in Masyaf, also known by its French acronym CERS, has long been associated with chemical weapons production, and was the target of a number of airstrikes attributed to Israel. An alleged Israeli strike on the site in April reportedly killed a number of Iranian soldiers.
The official quoted in The New York Times said that Israel had been tracking Azbar for years, and had wanted to assassinate him over his prominent role in Syria’s weapons program even before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. He said it was the fourth time in three years the Mossad has assassinated an enemy weapons engineer in a foreign country.
Israel has been blamed for the killing of several scientists in recent years, including two Hamas engineers in the last 18 months.
Israel does not usually comment on reports of its alleged military operations in Syria but has repeatedly warned it would work to keep advanced weapons out of Hezbollah terrorists’ hands and has vowed to stop Iran establishing a military presence in the country.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman sought to downplay the possibility of Israeli involvement in Azbar’s killing.
“Every day in the Middle East there are hundreds of explosions and settling of scores. Every time they try to place the blame on us. So we won’t take this too seriously,” he told Hadashot News.
An insurgent group calling itself the Abu Amara Brigades claimed responsibility for the operation. The group has previously claimed attacks targeting officials and militia commanders inside government territory.