Last Thursday, a day after Americans were nursing Fourth of July hangovers, tracking the Trayvon Martin case at home, or the fallout from the coup in Egypt, mysterious explosions occurred at a weapons depot in the Mushayrafet al-Samouk district of the Syrian coastal city of Latakia. Fighter jets were reportedly seen over the nearby city of Al-Haffah, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted residents in Latakia who claimed missiles fired from unknown locations were responsible for the blasts. The Observatory also said that several Syrian troops were killed and wounded.
Qassem Saadeddine, the spokesman for the Supreme Military Command (SMC) of the Free Syrian Army, told Reuters yesterday: “This attack was either by air raid or long-range missiles fired from boats in the Mediterranean.” The only plausible party responsible would therefore be Israel.
Regime media have kept silent about what happened beyond saying that a “series of explosions” were reported at the site. Hezbollah’s Al-Manar, meanwhile, citing a “military source,” claimed that the explosions were caused by rockets or missiles launched from a different army base; this one close to a village some 20 kilometers north of Latakia.
One Syrian war expert told me that the reported blast seemed “too small” to be another Israeli raid, and anyway, the Salafist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham has been pounding Latakia for quite some time. Many rebels outside of the SMC’s office, which thinks “everything is Israel,” tend to believe that militants from this outfit were in fact responsible, though the source added that this could just be idle boasting.
As against the massive IAF bombings of Iranian weapons caches deep inside Damascus this past May, the fiery aftermath of which was caught on video and uploaded instantly to YouTube, there’s been no confirmed documentary evidence of what happened in Latakia last week. When asked about the incident on July 6, Israeli Defense Minister (IDF) Moshe Ya’alon claimed that Israel hasn’t “intervened in the Syrian bloodshed in a long time.” A month and a half ago is evidently a long time to Ya’alon, though he offered the cagey stock response to any question of Israeli responsibility for recondite military operations abroad: “We have set red lines in regards to our own interests, and we keep them. There is an attack here, an explosion there, various versions – in any event, in the Middle East it is usually we who are blamed for most.” More intriguing is that Reuters quoted a “former senior Israeli security official” who confirmed that the area of Latakia hit was used to store Yakhont anti-ship missiles.
If Israel took the trouble to powder a consignment of SA-17 surface-to-air missiles, as it did this January in its first sortie in Syria since the conflict began, then it would certainly take the trouble to eliminate a warehouse full of Yakhonts, which would pose a clear threat to the Israeli navy and the transport of oil and gas tankers in the Mediterranean. The New York Times reported in May that a new consignment of these supersonic “ship killer” missiles, which can travel as far as 300 kilometers and evade air-defense and electronic countermeasures, had already been delivered to Syria. And The Wall Street Journal cited Israeli and Western intelligence officials who believed at the time that these missiles could easily be transferred to Hezbollah “within days.” Note that this was before Assad’s army, joined by irregular sectarian militias led by Hezbollah, retook Qusayr from the rebels, a strategically vital gateway in the Syria-Lebanon supply corridor.
“Bashar is providing or consistently trying to get Hezbollah top-shelf weapons,” a member of the Syrian Opposition Coalition posted on a Facebook forum. “In fact, Hezbollah is picking and choosing the weapons they would love to have and storing them on Syrian land.”
The first order of new Yakhonts, according to the Times, “covered 72 missiles, 36 launcher vehicles, and support equipment, and the systems have been displayed in the country.” Syria already had an existing stockpile of the missiles, but the upgraded models carry a more advanced radar system that would make them more effective at deterring a naval blockade or a no-fly zone – assuming, that is, the Syrians knew how to operate them.
While Russia’s Foreign Ministry claimed last month to have withdrawn all defense ministry personnel from Syria, this mass skedaddling did not apparently include the many “technicians” hired by the regime to train Syrian forces in how to use the newest Russian weaponry.
A hit on Latakia, if true, certainly wouldn’t be first time that Israel conducted a lethal raid on a Syrian port city. Late in the evening on August 1, 2008, Brigadier-General Muhammed Suleiman was shot by a sniper through the head and neck while visiting his beachfront chalet in Tartus. Widely regarded as Syria’s point-man for Hezbollah, Suleiman was also the manager, according to leaked State Department cables subsequently published by WikiLeaks, of “special projects for A[s]sad, some of which may have been unknown to the broader Syrian military leadership.” These projects mainly pertained to the procurement of special arms and strategic weapons. “The most obvious suspects are the Israelis,” the U.S. embassy in Damascus recorded. Suleiman’s assassination came just months after the Party of God’s top commander, Imad Mughniyeh, was blown up by a car bomb in the Kafarsouseh district of Damascus and after Israeli warplanes destroyed Syria’s nuclear site at al-Kibar.
Indeed, a coastal city such as Tartus (to quote again from the State Department) “would offer easier access to Israeli operative than would more inland locations such as Damascus.” Because Syria was at the time in the midst of ultimately fruitless (and always farcical) peace negotiations with Israel, and because attention to Suleiman’s killing would be an international embarrassment, the regime kept the affair mum. It also tried to temper internal paranoia that it had been an inside job, possibly ordered by security bigwig Assef Shawkat who hated Suleiman not least because the latter had stripped him of much of his intelligence portfolio following the Mughniyeh assassination, which also demonstrated how easily penetrated Syria’s mythic defenses are.