On September 1, 2010 the Russian newspaper “Red Star” reported in a terse announcement from the Kremlin that “Major General Yuri Ivanov, Deputy Head of GRU (Russian Military Intelligence Agency) had died in a ‘tragic swimming accident’ while on holiday in Latakia, Syria on August 8.” Nothing about this incident was reported in any USA newspapers to date, September 3, 2010. The death of such an important official of GRU in one of the militarily and politically hottest spots in the world was completely missed by the “media.”
Having followed such news stories over the past thirty-some years, I was sure that no high ranking Russian military intelligence agency official dies in a “tragic swimming” accident and his body washes up on shore many miles away. This just is not possible and, furthermore, it is almost unbelievable. At the time of his death, Yuri Ivanov was in the Syrian coastal town of Tartus visiting the building site for a new Russian military base for Russia’s Black Sea fleet, strategically a very important and a critical location for the Russians who do not have such facilities in the Mediterranean. According to locally obtained reports, after his visit to the base, Ivanov left for a meeting with Syrian intelligence agents. He then allegedly left to go to the resort town of Latakia where large numbers of high ranking Syrian government officials, as well as members of the visiting Royal family from nearby Arab countries, spend their holidays. Latakia is always teeming with securityforces, police, and undercover agents, and is generally considered very secure.
High ranking Russian Generals and intelligence officers are usually accompanied by large numbers of bodyguards who never let them out of their sights. There is no doubt that Ivanov was also accompanied by a large contingent of Russian bodyguards and other intelligence service security officers during his visit to the beach. It is highly unlikely, unless it was a set-up, for Ivanov to leave the sight of his security detail to take off alone for a personal activity. Therefore a swimming accident, whereby his dead body was not immediately recovered and taken to a secure location until higher-ups were informed, is highly suspect, if not possible. If the speculations are true, one would have to wonder where all these bodyguards and security detail members are located now. Turkish fishermen in Southern Turkey may have to keep a close watch for more “floaters” on the beach at Cevlik.
Major General Ivanov was the second in command at Russia’s military intelligence unit, GRU, which is the largest intelligence and reconnaissance agency in Russia and which reports directly to the general staff of Russia’s Armed forces. The directorate is much bigger than the KGB, which was broken up after the collapse of communism into two agencies: SVR, the foreign intelligence service, and FSB, the domestic intelligence service. He was previously stationed in Chechnya where he was sent to suppress and destroy the Chechan separatist movement. He may have been the major figure behind the infamous siege of a small school in Southern Russia by Chechan separatists who took 1,000 people hostage. Three hundred and thirty-three people, half of whom were children, died when theRussian army opened fire on the separatists, allegedly ordered by Ivanov who took his orders from then President Vladimir Putin.
As a result of Ivanov’s “suspicious” demise, many stories started to circulate amongst the intelligence services in the area:
- If one believes the official Russian speculation, Ivanov picked up some scuba equipment while visiting the beach in Latakia. According to official speculation, he either had a heart attack (he did have heart problems) while scuba diving, or he had consumed large quantities of alcohol before going scuba diving. However, the local Turkish police, where the dead body was found, indicated no such equipment was found on the General’s body.
- Other speculation notes that, when Ivanov was the head of the GRU’s operations in Chechnya, he may have ordered the assassinations of Chechen separatists outside of Russia (nine high ranking Chechen separatist leaders were murdered in Turkey, Qatar and Austria during Ivanov’s command) and Chechen agents may have murdered Ivanov in Latakia. This obviously does not account for the whereabouts of Ivanov’s bodyguards and security detail.
- He may also have been the victim of infighting within the Russian Army which has been undergoing serious reform for the past two years. The last high ranking Russian intelligence officer was also killed in 1992 when the Russian army was undergoing reforms. That murder still remains unsolved.
- As usual, there is speculation that Mossad (the Israeli spy agency) may have been involved in Ivanov’s death, since Israel has been very uncomfortable having a major Russian base with sophisticated listening capabilities so close to their country and within their perceived circle of influence. Intelligence services typically do not engage in killing one another’s officers for the obvious reason that retaliation by the rival agency is certainly the outcome.
- Terrorist organization Hamas, whose political center is located in Damascus, Syria, immediately announced that Mossad agents captured, interrogated and murdered Ivanov and threw his body in the Mediterranean. This would obviously be to Hamas’ advantage; putting Mossad against GRU.
- The incident recalls a similar one in 2008 in which a Syrian General and confidant of President Assad was assassinated by a sniper while sunbathing at his Southern Syrian coastal villa. In that case, the Syrian official news agency reported that General Suleiman died in a “tragic swimming accident.” The General was Syria’s military liaison with Hezbollah (another terrorist organization), and was responsible for supplying it with sophisticated weaponry which would have made him a “desirable” Mossad target.
On the other hand, high ranking Syrian government officials, as well as Hamas spies, were in Latakia during Ivanov’s death. People close to the investigations report an unusual silence from the Syrian government sources despite the fact that a very high ranking Russian spy was murdered in their territory.
As of this writing, there is no final word on the death of Ivanov. We may never know how the second in command of Russia’s largest spy agency washed up dead on the shores of a small village in Southern Turkey, miles away from where he was last seen, surrounded by his body guards and security detail in a very popular and secure Syrian seaside resort town.
Such is life and death in the world of spies; mysterious disappearances, unexplained “tragic swimming accidents”, and endless speculations by all sides. Truth is always the obvious victim.
Tarik Ayasun is currently a member of Marco Island’s Code Enforcement Board and has given many years of community service to various organizations.