Reports: Syria's Hezbollah Liaison Was Assassinated

Mohammed Suleiman, a top military aide to Syrian President Bashar Assad whom Israel believes was in charge of arms transfers from Syria to Hezbollah, was killed by sniper fire last Friday, according to reports that appeared yesterday in the Arab press and on web sites affiliated with the Syrian opposition.

Israel yesterday declined to either confirm or deny any connection with Suleiman's assassination.

This is the second time in the last two weeks that someone involved in arms smuggling to Hezbollah has been killed. Last week, Britain's Daily Telegraph reported that an Iranian Revolutionary Guard convoy that was ferrying arms to Hezbollah suffered an unexplained explosion that killed 15 people. Both Iran and Israel declined to comment on that incident.

Though Israel declined to issue any official statement on Suleiman's assassination, one senior Israeli official commented: "This is an embarrassing incident for the Syrians, who are once again being portrayed as not in control of what happens in their territory." In February, Hezbollah master terrorist Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus.

Suleiman was thought to be in charge of overseeing both Iranian arms transfers to Hezbollah via Syria and shipments from Syria's own arms industry. He focused in particular on supplies of long-range rockets, including 220-millimeter rockets with a 70-kilometer range like the one that struck a Haifa railway garage during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, killing eight people.

The first report of his death appeared Saturday on the Arab web site Al-Bawaba, which said Suleiman had been killed by a seaborne sniper. Yesterday, the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat reported that an unnamed senior Syrian officer in a "sensitive position" had been killed. The Free Syria web site, affiliated with the Syrian opposition, said that Suleiman was killed in Tartus, in northern Syria. Yet another web site offered more details, saying he was shot in the head while staying at his seaside villa in Tartus; that report added that immediately after the shooting, Syrian troops raided the area and arrested several residents of neighboring villas.

One report added that Suleiman, whose rank was the equivalent of an Israeli brigadier general, occupied a senior position in Assad's bureau.

However, there was no mention of the assassination in the official Syrian press. This may be due to the strategic sensitivity of Suleiman's role as Syria's liaison to Hezbollah.

Suleiman was assassinated on Army Day, an annual commemoration of the establishment of Syria's army. To mark the day, Assad hosted a festive dinner for senior army officers, which Suleiman was slated to attend. If the media reports are accurate, he was killed after returning home from that event.

Opposition web sites also reported that Suleiman had been a classmate of Assad's older brother, Basil, who was originally slated to succeed their father Hafez as president, but died in a car crash in the mid-1990s.