It’s only an unconfirmed report, but it is starting to get attention in parts of the Middle East: that five nuclear experts were killed in an ambush while riding a bus to their workplace in Syria’s capital, Damascus, a few days ago.
The story immediately fueled conspiratorial theories that Israeli intelligence, namely the Mossad, may have accomplished a daring mass assassination.
This all began with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reported that this attack occurred on Sunday near the Barzeh neighborhood of Damascus.
Barzeh is the site of a small nuclear laboratory run by President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Barzeh has a Chinese-built miniature neutron source reactor, a compact research reactor copied from a Canadian design.
This reactor, from its inception, has been under the supervision of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency. IAEA inspectors have visited the site many times.
The truth — it turned out — was that the small Barzeh reactor, fueled by highly enriched uranium supplied in miniscule amounts by China and a few other nuclear facilities, served as a decoy. While its presence and work were fully registered with the UN’s IAEA, Barzeh was diverting attention from the secret construction of a much bigger nuclear reactor in eastern Syria being built by North Korea — the one that was bombed by Israel’s air force in 2007, with no announcement or official confirmation by Israel.
The Syrian government has not yet reacted to this week’s reports. The Iranian media also ignored it, until Iran’s Press TV put out a short item about the incident — although it fails to mention that probably one of the five dead experts was an Iranian engineer.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which occurred in an area controlled by forces loyal to President Assad.
As exciting or intriguing as it may be to attribute the attack to Israel, there is no evidence to back up such an assertion. Israeli involvement is, in fact, unlikely.
Israeli analysts believe that after the nuclear reactor in northeastern Syria was destroyed in September 2007, when it was on the verge of being operational and capable of producing plutonium as fissile material for nuclear bombs, the threat of Syria becoming a nuclear power was removed.
According to foreign news reports, Israel has occasionally interfered in the civil war by sending its air force to bomb convoys of Syrian trucks transporting sophisticated weapons bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel perceives any ground, sea and air missiles supplied to Hezbollah as a threat.
But that is not how Syria’s practically non-existent nuclear program is seen.
Thus, there is no incentive for Israel to risk its intelligence-gathering operatives and military forces by launching an assassination mission. Put simply, Syria no longer poses a serious military – not to mention nuclear – threat to Israel. So why bother?
Furthermore, it is not the first time that Syrian nuclear scientists were targeted during the civil war. In a similar incident in July of last year, six people who also worked at Barzeh were killed in a mortar attack carried out by anti-government militants.
It thus seems likely that a murder of five nuclear experts was not the work of Israel — but another act of violence by one of the rival groups fighting the Assad regime.
We shouldn’t even rule out the possibility that it was an act of revenge – an inside job by the regime itself, for reasons unknown in the fog of a civil war that has raged for nearly five years.