Israeli spying equipment has been found hidden in artificial rocks on an uninhabited island opposite the Syrian port of Tartus, where it was being used to monitor Russian naval movements.
Three large espionage devices were discovered by fishermen on the tiny Ant Island near a naval base regarded by Moscow as an important strategic asset in the Mediterranean.
They were mounted in fake rocks designed to blend in with surrounding boulders.
According to Al-Manar, a pro-Syrian television station in neighbouring Lebanon, the “rocks” could track and film Russian warship movements and instantly transmit pictures back to Israel by satellite.
Syria’s state-run television showed a camera, a satellite dish and other objects including batteries and cables secreted among several imitation rocks.
They are understood to have been installed by divers from Flotilla 13, Israel’s elite naval commando unit. They approached the island from one of the country’s German-built Dolphin class submarines, which are armed with nuclear cruise missiles.
The commandos’ immediate problem was not so much being spotted by the Syrians as the risk of detection by “friendly” patrols from the US Sixth Fleet and a British monitoring station in Cyprus that keeps a close watch on the Syrian coastline.
The commandos had apparently visited the island earlier to obtain samples so the colour and shape of local rocks could be matched and the right position for the monitoring station established.
Under cover of darkness the frogmen ferried the equipment on two inflatable dinghies equipped with silent outboard motors to Ant Island where they spent several hours installing it, disguising it and ensuring that the satellite links were operational.
They had been given a tight time window to be back on the submarine before local fishermen returned to port.
It is not known how long the monitoring station operated before it was uncovered. A senior Syrian security official said the equipment was highly intricate and as well as tracking ships could also keep tabs on Syrian troop movements.
Russia leased the Tartus facility in a deal in 1971 under which a multibillion-dollar debt was written off. Several Russian warships have docked at the port in recent months.
Vice-Admiral Viktor Chirkov, the Russian naval chief, stressed recently that Tartus was “essential to us”.
A Radio Free Europe report claimed last year that Moscow had facilities at Tartus to dock nuclear submarines and that Russian arms were being delivered through the port. “Russia’s greatest strategic and geopolitical interest in Syria is the use of a deep-water port at Tartus,” it said.
While Russia continues to provide Syria with diplomatic support, its intelligence and military presence in the country is growing.
The coastal region is a stronghold of the minority Alawite sect, which includes President Bashar al-Assad and much of the ruling elite.
“The Russians have been convinced for a long time that Assad is doomed and that eventually he will be forced to retreat to the Alawite enclave so they want to be there,” said a defence source.
Israel is also eager to monitor military developments. “Any unusual activity by the Russians in Tartus, such as a sudden evacuation of families and non-essential personnel, would be good indicators for the Israelis that something big was happening.”
In recent weeks shells have strayed across Israel’s border in the Golan Heights, prompting retaliation. But fears are growing in Israel that hardline Islamist groups under the banner of Al-Nusra Front could gain control of border territory and pose a serious threat.
“The potential for full-scale war has increased and when that happens it will be sudden and it will pose an unprecedented threat to our cities,” warned Major General Yair Golan, the Israeli commander in charge of the northern region, last week.
Golan said Israel should consider working with Syrians opposed to extremist Islamist battalions to create a buffer zone inside southern Syria.
An Israeli defence source last week lamented the instability that the uprising had brought to the entire region. He said: “The Assads were murderous bastards but they were ‘our’ bastards. Since June 1974 our border with Syria was as peaceful as the one between France and Spain. It’s not any more.”