High-Ranking Syrian Regime Scientist Killed by Car Bomb

A car bomb killed high-ranking Syrian regime scientist Dr. Aziz Esber on Saturday as he was leaving his home in Masyaf, in the countryside of Syria’s Hama Governorate. The explosion also claimed the life of Esber’s driver. In a statement broadcast on its Telegram channel, the “Abu Amara Special Operations Detachment” – a group affiliated with the Organization for the Liberation of al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front – claimed credit for the attack. The group alleged that, after a “surveillance operation,” it had succeeded “planting explosive device” on Esber’s car, and then detonating it and killing him.

Esber was a secretive individual, and little was known about him before his assassination on Saturday. So much so, in fact, that he was not included in the U.S. Treasury’s April 2017 sanctions against the Syrian regime’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), a complex agency ostensibly responsible for overseeing the country’s scientific activities, but which acted as a cover for developing conventional and unconventional weapons, as well as missile technology.

According to regime sources, Esber obtained PhDs in Nuclear Physics and in Liquid Rocket Fuel from an unnamed university in France. He also held the rank of Brigadier General in the Syrian Army. Opposition sources claim that, until his death, Esber was part of a trio – consisting of himself, Brig. Gen. Bassam al-Hassan and Brig. Gen. Dr. Youssef Ajeeb – responsible for running the SSRC.

Officially, the SSRC is headed by Dr. Amr Armanazy. However, Syrian opposition sources claim Aramanazy is only a figurehead. Instead, the SSRC answers directly to the Syrian Presidential Palace, which issues orders to the Research Center through Brig. Gen. al-Hassan, an advisor to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his representative to the SSRC. Ajeeb – who heads the SSRC’s Central Security, making him the Research Center’s de facto director – is responsible for carrying out Hassan’s orders.  Esber was directly appointed by Bashar al-Assad as the head of the SSRC’s northern sector – an operationally independent network of facilities known as “Sector IV”, also known as “Institute 4000,” located in the Hama Governorate’s city of Masyaf.

In this position, Esber was second in importance to Ajeeb in the SSRC hierarchy. However, he was not under Ajeeb’s command, instead answering directly to the Syrian President.  He frequently met with Ajeeb and Colonel Mufidh Ghadda, an officer in the Syrian Presidential Palace with oversight authority over the SSRC, alongside Brig. Gen. Hassan.

According to Syrian regime defectors, Sector IV’s specialties include aviation and missile production. An intelligence document obtained by the BBC in May 2017 revealed that the Masyaf facility was also involved in manufacturing chemical weapons and installing them on long-range missiles and artillery. These specialties overlapped with Esber’s own skill-set, which included knowledge of how to produce Iranian Fateh-110 and Fateh-313 missiles. Esber was also involved in developing Syrian variants of Iranian-made rockets, including the M-600 “Tishreen” variant of the Fateh-110 – which he worked on upgrading to precision-guided missiles with IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani – and the Maysaloun variant of the Zelzal-2.  Esber was also working on equipping Syrian missiles with solid-fuel propellants which, in contrast to their current liquid propellants, would allow them to remain fully fueled in storage for long periods of time, and then fired on short notice.

A Syrian regime source described Esber as one of the regime’s “most import resources for Syrian military power,” and said he was “capable of developing various kinds of weapons, primarily missiles.” The source claimed that, at the time of his death, Esber had been working on upgrading the Syrian Army’s capabilities to help it achieve “parity with the [Israeli] enemy,” and restoring the capabilities it possessed prior to the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. This dovetails with information t from Syrian opposition sources claiming that Sector IV was working on a project dubbed “Project 99,” focused on developing SCUD missiles in cooperation with North Korean scientists. 

Esber’s role in the Syrian regime extended beyond Sector IV. Regime sources say he was close to Bashar al-Assad and part of his inner circle, in addition to being one of his most trusted scientists. In this capacity, he acted as the link between experts from Damascus, Iran, Russia, and North Korea since late 2015. Esber also earned the confidence of both Iran and its protégé Hezbollah, who coordinated their activities in Syria. In fact, according to pro-regime sources, Hezbollah counted him as one of its “most trusted” Syrian confidantes and allowed him to personally oversee the “outfitting of several of the group’s warehouses” in Syria.

Despite the Abu Amara group claiming credit for Esber’s assassination, both Hezbollah and Syrian regime sources are blaming Israel. On September 7, 2017 and again on July 22, 2018, Israeli jets targeted the facility in Masyaf. Pro-Assad sources now claim that Esber was the actual target of these strikes. They claim this is only the latest part of Israel’s attempt to “drain” the Assad regime of its top scientific minds, in a string of assassinations that has included Nabil Zgheib, a Syrian regime missile program engineer; Aws Khalil, a nuclear engineer assassinated in Homs; and Hassan Ibrahim, a Syrian officer and electronic warfare specialist.

As usual, the Israelis have refused to comment. However, a Middle Eastern intelligence official speaking anonymously to The New York Times also claimed Jerusalem was responsible, saying his agency was informed about the operation. The intelligence official claims the Mossad had been tracking Esber for a long time due to his work on upgrading the destructive capabilities and accuracy of Syria’s missile arsenal, and finally eliminated him on Saturday night.

David Daoud is a Research Analyst on Lebanon and Hezbollah at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI)