By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
On Saturday a Syrian scientist left his home in Hama for a drive to Masyaf, a facility of the Scientific Studied and Research Center (SSRC), sometimes called Centre D’Etudes et de Recherches Scientifiques (CERS). He was killed in a car bombing, according to reports.
What is SSRC?
Founded in 1969, the state linked organization is supposed to help the Syrian regime advance its various goals. NTI notes: these include responsibility “for new research and development of nuclear, biological, chemical, and missile-related technology.” Since 2005 it has been on a list of the US Treasury Department, “Blocking Property of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferators and their Supporters.” It is also part of the Specially Designated Nationals list.
Despite its activities CERS/SSRC was able to receive financial support over the years and its experts trained abroad. Foreign Policy notes: “European companies, rather than inquiring about how their sensitive technology would be used, looked to make a quick profit by providing CERS with whatever it desired. In the mid-1980s, the West German company Schott Glasswerke provided high-durability glass instruments for what the Syrians dubbed the ‘Borosilicate Glass Project’ — but which was, in reality, a project to manufacture sarin gas.”
Have SSRC sites been struck before?
Yes. These sites have been hit several times in the last years. in September 2017, February 2018, April 2018.
In 2017 Amos Yadlin wrote at the NYT: “In the early hours of Thursday night, according to the Syrian Army, the Israeli Air Force attacked a military site in the Syrian town of Masyaf that produces advanced missiles.” The September 2017 strike came in the context of other strikes on facilities in Syria thought to link Iran with the regime and Hezbollah and advanced weapons procurement.
In 2013 Foreign Policy noted: ‘”Sunday morning, the skies over Damascus lit up with explosions as Israeli jets launched airstrikes near the capital. The target was reportedly the innocuously named Center of Scientific Studies and Research in the suburb of Jamraya, which goes by its French initials CERS.”
Iran’s Press TV singled out Israel for blame. It noted that on July 22 the Masyaf facility was struck by a missile which it also blamed on Israel.
Why is Masyaf important?
The Masyaf facility is a key part of the network of SSRC sites. It has been the target of an airstrike in the past that local reports blamed on Israel. It is one of three sites alleged to be involved in chemical weapons production, according to a May report in the BBC in May 2017. In addition the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control notes that Masyaf is where chemical weapons are installed on long range missiles.
Who was Dr. Asbar?
The scientist’s name was Dr. Aziz Asbar, sometimes spelled Azbar, Asber Isbar or Esber, and he was reported to have been working on a medium and long range missile program at the Scientific Studied and Research Center (SSRC) in Masyaf. News first emerged of his death in a car bomb on Saturday night. “Reports that Aziz Esber, very senior figure in the Syrian Scientific Studied and Research Center, who worked on missile development and directed R&D facility in Misyaf, was killed in a car bomb in Hama,” tweeted Syrian expert Tony Badran.
“Dr. Isbir was not present at the site,” Press TV claims. How they would know that is unclear, unless of course members of the scientist’s staff told the Iranians or pro-Iranian media these details.
He has been described as “head of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center in Masyaf.”
Sputnik and Al-Manar note: “Aziz Asbar, a prominent Syrian ‘patriot scientist’, who was allegedly involved in the development of chemical weapons.”
But his name isn’t on the US Treasury list?
In April 2017 the US Department of the Treasury designated 271 staff members of the SSRC for sanctions. The SSRC, and those connected to Masyaf have also been singled out for sanctions by Australia and other governments. However on the list of names designated Dr. Asbar or any of the various ways to spell his name, is not listed. This could be because he was not senior enough, but if his role was as key as is alleged in the reports it appears that this is an oversight or because his role was primarily rocketry and not chemical weapons related. However reports also indicate he was a head of the Masyaf facility and was close to both Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad and Iran, a unique link in a network that ties Damascus to Tehran.
What other assassinations were similar to the killing of Asbar?
The death of Asbar is reminiscent of other assassinations of high profile individuals in Hamas and Hezbollah. For instance, Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah was killed in a car bomb in 2008 in Damascus. Israel and the US allegedly “teamed up” to take him out.
A Hamas official was targeted with a car bomb in Lebanon in January 2018. Mahmoud Al-Mahbouh who was assassinated in Dubai in 2010. He had helped arrange the movement of weapons from Iran to the Gaza Strip and as such removing him damaged the Hamas-Iran network. In 2012 an Iranian scientist Mostafa Roshan was killed when his Peugot 405 blew up in Tehran. He was a deputy director of a unit at the Natanz uranian enrichment center, according to CNN.
Is this a new phase in the Syrian conflict?
The killing of a scientist who is a key link to Iran and the Assad regime and involved in long range missiles may represent an attempt to go after the brains behind Syria’s weapons program. Key people cannot be as easily replaced as weapons and sites that have been bombed in the past. A facility at Damascus International Airport was rebuilt just a month or so after it was targeted, for instance.
I’ve called Israel’s use of air power in Syria “air power diplomacy” because in a Clausewitz sense it mixes war, politics and strategy. The goal is to deny Iran too much of a foothold in Syria. Part of that is Netanyahu’s threats against Iran and demands that Iran leave Syria. Then there are private discussions with Moscow and Washington. Then there are reports that appear in media about Iran’s foothold, such as at Kiswah. There are the reports that show up as satellite images or in Arabic press such as Jarida and al-Ghad. Then there are the actual airstrikes, most of which are blamed on Israel but which Israel does not admit or take credit for.
This is one way to understand the apparent assassination. It is part of a new phase and a message to Assad and Tehran. It shows that air power can only achieve so much.