Death in Damascus

The murder by car bomb of Izz al-Din al-Sheikh Khalil, a senior Hamas operative, in Damascus two days ago, is the first time that Israel’s oft-repeated threats to Damascus have been carried out. It was reported that he was responsible for the planning and final approval of the double suicidebus bombing in Beersheva three weeks ago that killed 13 Israelis.

In response to the threats, Syria had acted to lower the profile of the terrorist groups operating out of Damascus. Since Syria had ostensibly declared that it was involved in the war against terrorism, the US in meetings with Pres. Assad had made specific protestations about the freedom of movement and the presence of offices of several dozen terrorist groups in Damascus. Assad then acted to close them, although their functions were continued from other private premises. Finally, in the wake of the killing of the Hamas leaders, Shiekh Yassin and Abdul Rantisi in Gaza, the Hamas leadership got the message and quietly disappeared. However, unlike many other Hamas top leaders Khalil had not gone underground.

Recent word is that the current head of Hamas operations, Khalid Mashaal, who had survived an assassination attempt in Amman, Jordan a few years ago, had moved to Beirut then to Cairo or the Gulf. Evidence for this was reportedly given to the Israeli secret service (Mossad) by an un-named friendly Arab country. While Mashaal is no doubt being tracked by the Mossad, the Israeli Govt. (and no doubt the US) wanted to send a strong message to Assad, that his double game will not be tolerated. In Pres. Bush’s well known words”you’re either with us or against us.”

Now Assad is said to be desperately seeking to transfer a group of a dozen or so Iraqi nuclear scientists that he inherited from Saddam Hussein before his fall. They have apparently been given Syrian citizenship and hidden in a military base. But, they are continuing to do nuclear research. Now Assad wants to transfer them to Iran, but Iran itself is wary because they have their own problems with the IAEA as well as the US over their enriched uranium research.

This death in Damascus reminds us of the case of Eli Cohen, Israel’s super-spy, who originally came from there. He was recruited by the Mossad and sent to S. America, where he joined the Syrian community in exile passing as a successful businessman, which he was. He gave to the usual causes, including the Ba’ath party, and eventually became a well-known supporter. He then bravely moved back to Damascus and became one of the main supporters of Hafez Assad. He was so involved with the upper echelons of the Party that he was privy to all their secrets, including military activities. Unfortunately, Assad realized that there must be a mole in his organization, and one evening ordered all radio transmissions in Damascus to be turned off. As Eli Cohen was transmitting his message to Israel that evening he was detected and captured. After being tortured he was hung in a public square in Damascus in 1965. Much of Israel’s success against the Syrian Army in the 1967 6-Day war was due to his information. It will take a lot of Khalil’s to make up for one Eli Cohen.

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