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Who Killed One of Russia’s Top Spies?

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The Telegraph is reporting that Maj. Gen. Yuri Ivanov, deputy head of Russian intelligence service known as GRU, died in Syria recently.  Speculation is rampant that he was assassinated.  He had been staying in the northwestern Syrian resort of Tartous when he disappeared, with his body later hauled in by Turkish fishermen.

Here is some background on Ivanov:

Major-General Yuri Ivanov, 52, was the deputy head of Russia’s foreign military intelligence arm known as GRU which is thought to operate the biggest network of foreign spies out of all of Russia’s clandestine intelligence services.

…Reports have suggested he was on official business and the location where he is reported to have disappeared was only about fifty miles from a strategically vital Russian naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus which is being expanded and upgraded to service and refuel ships from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. The facility is Russia’s only foothold in the Mediterranean Sea, and Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, is known to be concerned that Moscow will use the upgraded facility as a base for spy ships and electronic espionage directed at the Middle East.

One wonders whether this is another variant of the U.S.S. Liberty episode in which Israel is warning the Russians not to stray too far into Israel’s business and its “sphere of influence.”  I have written here about the possibility of an Israeli attack on Syria.  Given this, the Mossad cannot have liked one of Russia’s top spies setting up a new base in Syria.  Israel undoubtedly feels it has its hands full anticipating attacks by Hezbollah or Syria on its northern front.  To add Russian mischief to the mix would be even more dangerous for Israeli interests.

The Guardian further adds that Ivanov was the architect of several spectacular assassinations of Chechen separatist leaders on foreign soil, one in Qatar.  It seems perfect justice for Ivanov himself to have died in similar circumstances.

Of course, this is speculation.  But given the dearth of facts, it seems credible speculation that awaits further confirmation or repudiation.

This incident recalls a not dissimilar one in 2008, in which a Syrian general and confidant of Pres. Assad was assassinated by a sniper while sunbathing at his southern Syrian coastal villa.  In that case too, if I recall correctly, the Syrians originally reported that Gen. Suleiman died in a “swimming accident.”  The general was Syria’s main liaison with Hezbollah and responsible for supplying it with sophisticated weaponry, and as such would’ve been a desirable Mossad target.

Furthermore, Israel, if it killed Ivanov, is sending Assad a message that it has penetrated his circle and those of his closest allies.  No one is safe.  It seems a sad recompense for Assad’s repeated offers to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel.  But there you go…if it’s inconveneint for Israeli political machinations to make peace with you, it would just as soon make war on you or kill you or your closest advisors and allies.

Both assassinations (if the Ivanov death was such) also happened in very close proximity to Tartous (Ivanov’s in Latakia and Suleiman’s in Tartous itself), which is not only a playground for the Syrian elite, but also, as the Telegraph story notes, a Russian naval facility.

This article appeared at Tikun Olam


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Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

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