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World

After A Car Bomb Killed A Syrian Rocket Scientist, Some Are Blaming Israeli Intelligence

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For the next few minutes, we're going to talk about a story that is straight out of a spy novel. This weekend, Aziz Azbar, one of Syria's most important rocket scientists, was killed by a car bomb. And people are pointing the finger at the Israeli spy agency Mossad. Ronen Bergman is an Israeli journalist who has been writing about this for The New York Times. He joins me now. Welcome.

RONEN BERGMAN: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.

CHANG: So who was Aziz Azbar?

BERGMAN: So Dr. Aziz Azbar was a senior missile and rocket scientist of the Syrian SSRC. That's the most important agency in Syria for the development of sophisticated armory missiles and chemical weapon. He was prime in developing chemical agent for President Assad, that chemical weaponry that was used against many thousands of his own people when he tried to suppress the civil war.

CHANG: And so is the theory that he was targeted because of his work helping Syria build up this arsenal of chemical weapons and missiles?

BERGMAN: Well, I would assume, if Israel was indeed behind that - and we have strong sources who suggest that the Mossad was behind the assassination - that Israel was interested in something a little different. That is, Dr. Azbar was the person who coordinated the production or the establishment of production line for Iranian sophisticated weaponry in Syria. And Israel fear that this weaponry would be directed against it.

CHANG: So Israel was targeting that pipeline of weaponry.

BERGMAN: So Israel, in the last fight, targeting anything connected to Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon - stashes, convoys of arms, dormitories built for Shiite militias.

CHANG: Now, you've reported that this was Israel's fourth attempt to assassinate a weapon's engineer on foreign soil. How many of those attempts have been successful?

BERGMAN: Well, this was the fourth attempt only in the last three years. We have counted some 15 during the last 10 years.

CHANG: And how many of those attempts have been successful?

BERGMAN: All of them except one.

CHANG: And with all these assassinations, who was targeted?

BERGMAN: Yes. In a broader perspective and looking back in history, the Mossad has a vast experience into targeting scientists, proliferators and other people and operatives and managers of projects of weapons of mass destruction or of rockets or missiles that could be aimed or used against Israel. They targeted Egyptians in the - in Germany that worked for the Egyptian in the '60s. And just recently, Hamas, the jihadist Palestinian group - some of their scientists in Tunisia, in Kuala Lumpur - as far as that - in Lebanon and now this in Syria.

CHANG: With all these assassination attempts, I mean, does this even comply with international conventions, or do these repeated assassinations set off a free-for-all in the region where any country can go after anyone on its own?

BERGMAN: Well, first, Israel does not claim responsibility and denies, in fact, any kind of involvement in this assassination. In general speaking, look; there would be a legal counseling to any kind of activity of Mossad who would say what is legal and what is not. And of course one can ask if these are legally and morally justified as these people were operatives but were not - at least some of them were not directly involved in terrorism. And some of them were sovereign workers of a sovereign state. However, you know, people who are working willingly, knowingly as part of the project of creating weapon of mass destruction of a country, Israel sees them as a legitimate target because Israel fear extinction.

CHANG: Has Syria used these past assassinations as a justification to try to assassinate enemies on foreign soil?

BERGMAN: Well, not Syria, but Hezbollah and Iran did react when an IRGC Revolutionary Guard general was killed in early 2015 in an Israeli bombing just near the border between Syria and Israel. The bottom line is that all the ingredients in the recipe of war between Israel on one hand and Syria, Hezbollah and Iran on the other are there. And if there's no, I would say, a mature grown up like Russia or the United States who truly intervene, not just with words, I'm afraid that we will see one of these action of both side or one of the sides deteriorate into an all-out conflict.

CHANG: Ronen Bergman is the author of "Rise And Kill First: The Secretive History Of Israel's Targeted Assassinations." Thank you for joining us.

BERGMAN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.