In 2008, Brig. Gen. Muhammad Suleiman was a top military advisor to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. According to internal NSA memos, Israel suspected him of facilitating arms deals between Iran and Hezbollah. He was also believed to be in charge of Syria’s Al Kibar nuclear facility, destroyed by an Israeli airstrike one year earlier.
On the evening of August 1, Suleiman was shot and killed while hosting a dinner party at his villa in the seaside city of Tartus. The assailants fled by boat, and a subsequent investigation by the Syrian government discovered $80 million in cash inside his home.
"[Assad] was said to be devastated by the discovery," reads a US State Department cable obtained by the Intercept, "and, fearing [Suleiman] had betrayed him, redirected the investigation from solving his murder to finding out how the general acquired so much money."
For years, top officials viewed Suleiman’s death as a sign of his corruption. But internal National Security Agency files released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden reveal that the general was assassinated by "Israeli naval commandos," and that this was the "first known instance of Israel targeting a legitimate government official," according to the Intercept.
The Israeli government has neither confirmed nor denied its involvement in the matter.
The documents confirm earlier allegations from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Last year, he accused the Israeli government of the assassination, saying it was retaliation for the general’s role in the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006.
"The Israelis may have had many good reasons to kill [Suleiman]," Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor of international law at Notre Dame, told the Intercept. "But under international law it’s absolutely clear that in Syria in 2008, they had no rights under the laws of war because at the time there was no armed conflict."
"They had no right to kill General Suleiman," she added.
The NSA’s documents are marked “SI,” indicating that the United States uncovered Israel’s involvement by eavesdropping on communication channels.
"We’ve had access to Israeli military communications for some time," a former US intelligence officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Intercept. The situation is sensitive, given the close cooperation between US and Israeli intelligence.
Current and former US officials have also given details about the joint Mossad-CIA murder of a top Hezbollah operative, Imad Mughniyeh, in Damascus.
"On February 12, 2008, Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah’s international operations chief, walked on a quiet nighttime street in Damascus after dinner at a nearby restaurant," the Washington Post reported earlier this year.
"As Mughniyah approached a parked SUV, a bomb planted in a spare tire on the back of the vehicle exploded, sending a burst of shrapnel across a tight radius. He was killed instantly."
This assassination occurred only six months before Suleiman’s death, and is indicative of an unnerving pattern.
"For them it’s not only payback, but mitigates future operations," another anonymous US intelligence officer told the Intercept, referring to Israel’s covert operations. "They will take a target of opportunity if it presents itself."