Assassination of Syrian intelligence officer could bring Iran-Israel battle to new level

Israel has not yet confirmed it was behind the death of Madhat al-Saleh, who is believed to have been advancing Iranian interests along Israel’s northern border. 

By Donna Rachel Edmunds, World Israel News

Israel and Iran could be moving into a new phase in their rivalry along the Syrian border due to the killing of a Syrian official who was believed to be helping Iran mount an offensive on Israeli positions, according to a respected Middle East analyst.

Madhat al-Saleh, a senior adviser to President Bashar Assad, was shot near his home in Ein al-Tina, on the Syrian side of Mount Hermon. The town is just a stone’s throw from the Druze village of Majdal Shams, located on the Israeli side of the border.

A former director of the Golan Affairs Office, al-Saleh was believed to have been instrumental in helping Hezbollah entrench its positions in the region, with a view to carrying out attacks against Israel. He had spent 12 years in Israeli prison.

Syria has alleged that al-Saleh was the victim of Israeli sniper fire.

Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow and expert on Iran at the Institute for National Security Studies, said it was not yet clear whether Israel was responsible for al-Saleh’s death, but if true, the assassination has sent a strong message to Iran and Syria regarding their activities on Israel’s northern border.

“It says that we have many ways and many techniques,” Guzansky told Israel Hayom. “We’re watching you.”

In the 1980s, al-Saleh was arrested for involvement in terrorist activities against Israel and sentenced to 12 years in prison. After his release, he returned to Syria, where he served as a Member of Parliament.

Israel has specifically warned about Iranian attempts to entrench itself as the dominant power in the Golan Heights by subverting villagers and building up weapons caches and other infrastructure in the region. This was allegedly Saleh’s area of expertise, which would be a reason for Jerusalem to order him killed when there was a high chance of success.

According to a report Sunday by the International Middle East Media Center, a Palestinian news organization, Saleh survived several previous IDF attempts on his life.

Following news of al-Saleh’s death, the Syrian state news agency explicitly accused Israel of his assassination and reported that “the enemy army shot him in a cowardly move while he was on his way home,” Israel’s Channel 12 reported.

On Friday, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, raising the issue of Iran’s entrenchment in Syria with an eye on targeting Israel. Bennett is expected to ask Putin to lean on Tehran and persuade them to pull back from the border.

Batya Jerenberg contributed to this report.