The war raging between Israel and Iran is not as inconspicuous as it may seem. It is taking place on a wide front that not only includes Iran, but also Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan and other regional states.
Syria, however, remains the main battlefield in this war, given the fact that it represents the vital geographical artery between Iran and the Lebanese resistance Hezbollah, through which arms, food, fuel, and other commodities flow.
Tel Aviv routinely bombs airports in Damascus and Aleppo when allegedly Iranian planes carrying members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) arrive or depart.
Israel also claims to target missile shipments on route to the resistance in Lebanon, but per their unofficial rules of engagement, they avoid causing resistance casualties. This is in compliance with the red line drawn by Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, who has vowed to retaliate in kind if Hezbollah members are killed.
As a result, Israel’s current modus operandi is to launch warning missiles near trucks carrying weapons, bombing them only after the drivers leave their vehicles.
The acts of aggression don’t just end there: another obscure war of espionage and counter-espionage hums constantly in the background. The prevalence of Israeli spy networks operating in Syria is certainly not a recent development. Recall Eli Cohen, the Mossad agent who penetrated senior Syrian circles in the 1960s, for which he was captured and hung with great fanfare in a public Damascus square.
Today, however, the use of social media has made recruiting far easier and more difficult for states to detect.
Israel employs social media networks to covertly penetrate Lebanon and Syria for the purpose of recruiting spies and informants – with a particular emphasis on infiltrating the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).
The most recent Israeli security operation to be foiled was the recruitment of a Sweden-based Syrian doctor and his two brothers – both officers in the Syrian army – to work for Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad.
One of the two brothers, who held a brigadier general rank, worked in the SAA’s Surveying and Topography Department, and was assigned to provide the Mossad with maps of the city of Damascus and its surroundings, including details of roads, highways, and bridges.
This particular espionage operation was uncovered by Lebanese security services, who managed to follow online accounts allegedly used by Mossad officers to recruit previously arrested agents. Investigations revealed a connection between these accounts and a person close to Beirut International Airport, using Syrian and Swedish phone numbers between 2020 and 2022.
Following the probe, it was discovered that these numbers belonged to Syrian doctor Moeen Youssef, who resides in Sweden and had previously travelled to Syria via Lebanon. He heads the nephrology department at a Stockholm hospital for a monthly salary of $7,300.
The security services arrested Youssef at Beirut International Airport last August on charges of working for the Mossad. During his interrogation, he informed investigators that an individual named “Christopher” contacted him via e-mail in 2018, claiming to work for environment and water purification companies, and offered to help him implement a free water purification project in Syria.
After communicating directly by phone, they met about a month later at the Sheraton Hotel in Stockholm, allegedly to discuss the water project. At that time, the doctor recommended that “Christopher” work with his two brothers inside Syria, Louay and Mazen.
Groomed by Mossad
Louay is a retired colonel in the Syrian army and Mazen was the brigadier general serving in the Topographical Engineering Department who retired early this year. His brother’s wife, a civil engineer working in the Damascus municipality, appears to have also been part of the project.
For two years, the Israelis worked to gain the trust of the Syrian doctor, before revealing their identity. During this span, several meetings were held with him in Sweden, Switzerland, Italy and the Czech Republic. The “company” even covered his travel expenses for these encounters.
At the last meeting in Switzerland, in August 2020, Youssef was asked to obtain a map that revealed the distribution of Syria’s water network over the entirety of its territory. He was paid 2,500 euros to purchase a cell phone with a Swedish chip and a laptop with encryption software for sending maps/documents, to lease an office in Syria run by his brother, and to buy a ticket to Beirut via Rome.
Youssef was also told to activate the WhatsApp application on the Swedish mobile line for communicating with his brother Mazen, and was trained to take security precautions to protect them both – under the pretext that his brother would not be exposed because he would be the recipient of confidential documents.
During interrogation, Youssef confessed that at that point, he realized he was communicating with an Israeli Mossad officer. Upon his return to Syria, he informed his father and two brothers, Louay and Mazen, of his suspicions. He added, “A discussion took place between us and we decided to continue communicating with him.”
Even the army has been compromised
Youssef admitted that he transferred sums of money in stages to his two brothers and father, in addition to modest gifts, and was also promised finances for a cement factory owned by his father.
After his arrest in Beirut, Syrian intelligence arrested four officers in the Syrian army and a large number of soldiers suspected of ties with the Israeli enemy. Yousef’s father, Omar, appeared in a recorded video where he repudiated the “heinous accusation.” After all. dealing with the Israeli enemy is a crime of high treason in Syria, punishable by death.
Lebanese security sources informed The Cradle that Hezbollah’s security apparatus provided logistical assistance to Syrian intelligence in pursuing these local agents. Hebrew websites published news of the subsequent arrests, naming officers from the SAA’s air force and military units in Tartus, and claiming that members of Hezbollah interrogated the detainees.
Modern recruitment methods
Investigations conducted by the Lebanese security services have revealed a new method of operation for the Mossad. Previously, spies were recruited through deception by women – “honeytraps,” as the practice is popularly known – or through extortion, after obtaining personal information about local targets.
Today, the Mossad casts a wider, less discerning net: most of the recent recruitments have taken place via social media platforms, where money acts as the primary incentive for a large number of collaborators living in financially distressed countries. This indiscriminate method also exposes Israeli intel to the intelligence agencies of targeted states more readily, as recruits could easily act as double agents for those same incentives.
One peculiar instance of an attempt to recruit a Hezbollah official was through a delivery service employee. A woman called a delivery business and offered $100 for its employee to purchase a book from a Beirut bookshop and deliver it by hand to an address in Bir al-Abed, a mostly pro-Hezbollah area in the city’s southern suburbs
The woman asked the deliveryman to place inside the book a letter she emailed that included the phrase “contact us,” with a phone number and an e-mail connected to the Mossad. She also asked him to photograph the building to make sure it was the correct address.
As it turned out, the intended person was not at home, so the courier delivered the book to his wife instead. After reviewing surveillance footage, the Lebanese General Security Service arrested the young man, who confirmed that the woman who asked him to deliver the book was Russian and that she had spoken to him in Modern Standard Arabic. At the time of writing, the courier is still under arrest pending further investigation.