A satellite photo of the village of Al-Baida, Syria
A satellite photo of the village of Al-Baida, Syria. Photo by DigitalGlobe
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Which Western intelligence agency requested satellite photographs of secret Syrian military installations near the border with Lebanon over the past two years?

A small patch of territory in northwest Syria has been photographed on at least 16 occasions. The images were procured by satellite imaging service DigitalGlobe, which the Western company hired.

The company received more orders for photographs over the past year, including two in January. All the photos, the dates they were taken and their precise locations are available online via Google Earth.

The 200-square-kilometer area in question is 30 kilometers north of Syria's northernmost border with Lebanon. The nearest town is Masyaf, which has 35,000 residents and is in the Hama district. Official Syrian government websites say the town and its environs are an agricultural and tourist region.

The images depict at least five guarded installations whose purpose is unclear. In the center is a new residential complex with at least 40 multistory buildings whose shape and structure are distinct from the architecture in the rest of the town.

A number of Google Earth users said they saw passageways to bunkers leading to installations underneath the mountains surrounding Masyaf.

Other users noted that Syrian journalist and human rights activist Nizar Nayouf told the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf in 2004 that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein smuggled his arsenal of chemical and biological weapons into Syria just prior to the United States' invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In the interview, Nayouf claimed that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were stashed in three separate sites in Syria, including an underground military base beneath the village of AlBaida, one kilometer south of Masyaf. Nayouf was imprisoned by Syrian authorities for 10 years. In 2001, he was granted political asylum in France.

Similar accusations of Iraqi weapons smuggling into Syria were made by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon during an interview with Channel 2 news. Former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon made similar claims in an interview with the now-defunct New York Sun.

The latest photographs of the area were taken in January, when tensions between Israel and Syria reached a fever pitch. Syrian President Bashar Assad, his foreign minister Walid Moallem and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, exchanged warnings over a possible war in the absence of progress toward a peace treaty.

Last month, media reports indicated that the transfer of Scud missiles and advanced M-600 rockets from Syria to Hezbollah led to the latest round of accusations between Jerusalem and Damascus. The news of the weapons delivery prompted the United States to delay the assignment of its ambassador to the diplomatic post in Syria.

In light of the escalating tensions, the IDF cancelled a comprehensive military enlistment drill so that Syria would not interpret the exercise as a preparation for war.

DigitalGlobe refused to say who requested the satellite photos. Two weeks before the September 2007 destruction of the nuclear reactor in northeast Syria, the company placed an order for numerous photographs of the installation.

Yedioth Ahronoth reported that the photos were ordered by Israel so that it could show them to the press after the bombing. According to the newspaper, Israel sought to demonstrate its military capabilities without revealing its sources.