Syria update: “This was one of the five most important acts in Israel’s history”

October 22, 2007

* Syria admits attack on its sovereignty by Israel
* And yet not a single Arab government has condemned Israel for its airstrike
* Worldwide support for Israel’s “crucial act”



1. A deafening silence from the Arab world
2. That Arab governments implicitly support Israel’s action has major implications
3. Lessons for Iran
4. “We came so close to World War Three that day” (The Spectator, Oct. 3, 2007)
5. “The case for Israel’s strike on Syria” (ABC News, Oct. 19, 2007)
6. “Israel used electronic attack in air strike” (Aviation Week, Oct. 8, 2007)
7. “Syrians disassembling ruins at bombed site” (Washington Post, Oct. 19, 2007)
8. “Israel hit unfinished Syrian nuclear reactor, says report” (AFP, Oct. 15, 2007)
9. “Rice opposed attack on Syrian nuclear site” (Sunday Times, Oct. 7, 2007)
10. “Israeli commandos ‘nuclear’ raid” (Sunday Times, Sept. 23, 2007)
11. “High-level N. Korean official meets Syrian PM” (AP, Oct. 22, 2007)

[All notes below by Tom Gross]


A sizeable number of people have asked me for further reaction to what happened in northeast Syria on September 6. Following up on the items about this incident in previous dispatches on this list, I would make the following observations:

1. Only a very small number of people in Israel, Syria and Washington know the exact and full details of what happened.

2. I am told by a senior person in Israel’s intelligence circles that the action taken on September 6 was among “the five most important acts Israel has ever taken, and Israel had no choice but to act.”

3. It is probably also one of the most important acts taken in recent times by any government, anywhere in the world.

4. In addition, it potentially has significant implications for the laws of war and preemption.



5. Arab countries condemn Israel in international forums at every opportunity. Yet despite the fact that Syrian President Assad has admitted that Israel bombed a site at Tall al-Abyad in Syria’s eastern desert on Sept. 6 (though denying that the target was as rumored), and called it an act of war, not a single Arab or European government, nor the governments of states such as China and Russia, has condemned Israel for this unilateral air strike (and possible ground operation). This speaks volumes for the magnitude of what Israel did and the importance that Arab governments attribute to it, as well as their implicit support.

6. In contrast to the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, Israel has not commented at all on what happened in Syria. There are good reasons why both the Israeli and Syrian governments are not interested in revealing any details of this incident.



7. The lack of reaction or condemnation by other governments, and the complete lack of street protests, suggests that there would not be nearly as much opposition as some predict, were Iran’s nuclear program to be removed.

8. The normally boisterous Israeli media are continuing to be remarkably quiet regarding the Sept. 6 incident and have refrained from their normal speculations and criticism.

9. A number of foreign media have speculated on what occurred. Some of the information in their reports was leaked from sources in Washington. These articles provide a partial account of what happened but don’t necessarily tell the full story. I attach a number of these foreign media articles below.

I would like to add that the report in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Watan (that “U.S. jets provided aerial cover for Israeli strike aircraft during the attack on Syria”) is almost certainly incorrect.

-- Tom Gross



We came so close to World War Three that day
By James Forsyth and Douglas Davis*
The Spectator magazine (London)
October 3, 2007

(* Douglas Davis and James Forsyth are subscribers to this email list.)

A meticulously planned, brilliantly executed surgical strike by Israeli jets on a nuclear installation in Syria on 6 September may have saved the world from a devastating threat. The only problem is that no one outside a tight-lipped knot of top Israeli and American officials knows precisely what that threat involved.

Even more curious is that far from pushing the Syrians and Israelis to war, both seem determined to put a lid on the affair. One month after the event, the absence of hard information leads inexorably to the conclusion that the implications must have been enormous.

That was confirmed to The Spectator by a very senior British ministerial source: “If people had known how close we came to world war three that day there’d have been mass panic. Never mind the floods or foot-and-mouth – Gordon really would have been dealing with the bloody Book of Revelation and Armageddon.”

According to American sources, Israeli intelligence tracked a North Korean vessel carrying a cargo of nuclear material labelled “cement” as it travelled halfway across the world. On 3 September the ship docked at the Syrian port of Tartus and the Israelis continued following the cargo as it was transported to the small town of Dayr as Zawr, near the Turkish border in north-eastern Syria.

The destination was not a complete surprise. It had already been the subject of intense surveillance by an Israeli Ofek spy satellite, and within hours a band of elite Israeli commandos had secretly crossed into Syria and headed for the town. Soil samples and other material they collected there were returned to Israel. Sure enough, they indicated that the cargo was nuclear.

Three days after the North Korean consignment arrived, the final phase of Operation Orchard was launched. With prior approval from Washington, Israeli F15I jets were scrambled and, minutes later, the installation and its newly arrived contents were destroyed.

So secret were the operational details of the mission that even the pilots who were assigned to provide air cover for the strike jets had not been briefed on it until they were airborne. In the event, they were not needed: built-in stealth technology and electronic warfare systems were sophisticated enough to “blind” Syria’s Russian-made anti-aircraft systems.

What was in the consignment that led the Israelis to mount an attack which could easily have spiralled into an all-out regional war? It could not have been a transfer of chemical or biological weapons; Syria is already known to possess the most abundant stockpiles in the region. Nor could it have been missile delivery systems; Syria had previously acquired substantial quantities from North Korea. The only possible explanation is that the consignment was nuclear.

The scale of the potential threat – and the intelligence methods that were used to follow the transfer – explain the dense mist of official secrecy that shrouds the event. There have been no official briefings, no winks or nudges, from any of the scores of people who must have been involved in the preparation, analysis, decision-making and execution of the operation. Even when Israelis now offer a firm “no comment”, it is strictly off the record. The secrecy is itself significant.

Israel is a small country. In some respects, it resembles an extended, if chaotic, family. Word gets around fast. Israelis have lived on the edge for so long they have become addicted to the news. Israel’s media is far too robust and its politicians far too leaky to allow secrets to remain secret for long. Even in the face of an increasingly archaic military censor, Israeli journalists have found ways to publish and, if necessary, be damned.

The only conceivable explanation for this unprecedented silence is that the event was so huge, and the implications for Israeli national security so great, that no one has dared break the rule of omertà. The Arab world has remained conspicuously – and significantly – silent. So, too, have American officials, who might have been expected to ramp up the incident as proof of their warnings about the dangers of rogue states and WMDs. The opposite is true. George Bush stonewalled persistent questions at a press conference last week with the blunt statement: “I’m not going to comment on the matter.” Meanwhile the Americans have carried on dealing with the North Koreans as if nothing has changed.

The Syrian response, when it eventually came, was more forthcoming but no more helpful. First out of the blocks was Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja’afari, who happily announced that nothing had been bombed in Syria and nothing had been damaged.

One week later, Syria’s Vice-President, Farouk a-Shara, agreed that there had, after all, been an attack – on the Arab Centre for the Studies (sic) of Arid Zones and Dry Lands (ACSAD). Brandishing a photograph of the Arab League-run plant, he declared triumphantly: “This is the picture, you can see it, and it proves that everything that was said about this attack was wrong.”

Well, perhaps not everything. The following day, ACSAD issued a statement denying that its centre had been targeted: “Leaks in the Zionist media concerning this ACSAD station are total inventions and lies,” it thundered, adding that a tour of the centre was being organised for the media.

On Monday, Syria’s President, Bashar Assad, offered his first observations of the attack. The target, he told the BBC disingenuously, was an unused military building. And he followed that with vows to retaliate, “maybe politically, maybe in other ways”.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post noted that the United States had accumulated a growing body of evidence over the past six months – and particularly in the month leading up to the attack – that North Korea was co-operating with Syria on developing a nuclear facility. The evidence, according to the paper, included “dramatic satellite imagery that led some U.S. officials to believe the facility could be used to produce material for nuclear weapons”. Even within America’s intelligence community, access to that imagery was restricted to just a handful of individuals on the instructions of America’s National Security Adviser, Stephen Hadley.

Why are all sides so reluctant to clarify the details of this extraordinary event? “In the Middle East,” noted Bret Stephens, a senior editorial executive at the Wall Street Journal and an acute observer of the region, “that only happens when the interests of prudence and the demands of shame happen to coincide”. He suggested that the “least unlikely” explanation is a partial reprise of the Israeli air strike which destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.

Another of the “least unlikely” possibilities is that Syria was planning to supply its terrorist clients with “dirty” bombs, which would have threatened major cities through­out the world. Terrorism is a growth industry in Syria and it is only natural that, emboldened by its Iranian ally, the Syrian regime should seek to remain the market leader by supplying the ultimate weapon to Hezbollah, Hamas and a plethora of Palestinian rejectionist groups who have been given house-room in Damascus.

The Syrians have good reason to up the ante now. The Alawite regime of Bashar Assad is facing a slew of tough questions in the coming months – most particularly over its alleged role in the murder of the former Lebanese leader, Rafiq Hariri, and its active support for the insurgency in Iraq. Either of these issues could threaten the survival of the regime. How tempting, then, to create a counter-threat that might cause Washington and others to pull their horns in – and perhaps even permit a limited Syrian return to Lebanon?

But that does not explain why the consignment was apparently too large to be sent by air. Look deeper and you find an array of other highly plausible explanations. The North Koreans, under intense international pressure, might have chosen to “park” a significant stockpile of nuclear material in Syria in the expectation of retrieving it when the heat was off. They might also have outsourced part of their nuclear development programme – paying the Syrians to enrich their uranium – while an international team of experts continued inspecting and disabling North Korea’s own nuclear facilities. The shipment might even – and this is well within the “least unlikely” explanations – have been intended to assist Syria’s own nuclear weapons programme, which has been on the cards since the mid-1980s.

Apart from averting the threat that was developing at Dayr as Zawr, Israel’s strategic position has been strengthened by the raid. Firstly, it has – as Major General Amos Yadlin, the head of Israel’s military intelligence, noted – “restored its deterrence”, which was damaged by its inept handling of the war in the Lebanon last year. Secondly, it has reminded Damascus that Israel knows what it is up to and is capable of striking anywhere within its territory.

Equally, Iran has been put on notice that Israel will not tolerate any nuclear threat. Washington, too, has been reminded that Israel’s intelligence is often a better guide than its own in the region, a crucial point given the divisions between the Israeli and American intelligence assessments about the development of the Iranian bomb. Hezbollah, the Iranian/Syrian proxy force, has also been put on notice that the air-defence system it boasted would alter the strategic balance in the region is impotent in the face of Israeli technology.

Meanwhile, a senior Israeli analyst told us this week that the most disturbing aspect of the affair from a global perspective is the willingness of states to share their technologies and their weapons of mass destruction. “I do not believe that the former Soviet Union shared its WMD technology,” he said. “And they were careful to limit the range of the Scud missiles they were prepared to sell. Since the end of the Cold War, though, we know the Russians significantly exceeded those limits when selling missile technology to Iran.”

But the floodgates were opened wide by the renegade Pakistan nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who is revered in Pakistan as the Father of the Islamic Bomb. Khan established a virtual supermarket of nuclear technologies, parts and plans which operated for more than a decade on a global stage. After his operation was shut down in 2004, Khan admitted transferring technology and parts to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Proliferation experts are convinced they know the identities of at least three of his many other clients: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

In addition to selling nuclear-related knowhow, the Khan network is also believed to have provided Syria with centrifuges for producing enriched uranium. In 2003, concern about Syria’s nuclear ambitions was heightened when an experimental American electronic eavesdropping device picked up distinctive signals indicating that the Syrians had not only acquired the centrifuges but were actually operating them.

If Israel’s military strike on Dayr as Zawr last month was surgical, so, too, was its handling of the aftermath. The only certainty in the fog of cover-up is that something big happened on 6 September – something very big. At the very least, it illustrates that WMD and rogue states pose the single greatest threat to world peace. We may have escaped from this incident without war, but if Iran is allowed to continue down the nuclear path, it is hard to believe that we will be so lucky again.



The case for Israel’s strike on Syria
By Martha Raddatz
ABC News
October 19, 2007

Israeli officials believed that a target their forces bombed inside Syria last month was a nuclear facility, because they had detailed photographs taken by a possible spy inside the complex, ABC News has learned.

The Bush administration has steadfastly refused to say anything about the Israeli raid on Syria, or to confirm what was hit. But ABC News has learned of the apparent mole and other dramatic and secret details about the events leading up to the airstrike, plus the evidence that supported it.

A senior U.S. official told ABC News the Israelis first discovered a suspected Syrian nuclear facility early in the summer, and the Mossad – Israel’s intelligence agency – managed to either co-opt one of the facility’s workers or to insert a spy posing as an employee.

As a result, the Israelis obtained many detailed pictures of the facility from the ground.

The official said the suspected nuclear facility was approximately 100 miles from the Iraqi border, deep in the desert along the Euphrates River. It was a place, the official said, “where no one would ever go unless you had a reason to go there.”

But the hardest evidence of all was the photographs.

The official described the pictures as showing a big cylindrical structure, with very thick walls all well-reinforced. The photos show rebar hanging out of the cement used to reinforce the structure, which was still under construction.

There was also a secondary structure and a pump station, with trucks around it. But there was no fissionable material found because the facility was not yet operating.

The official said there was a larger structure just north of a small pump station; a nuclear reactor would need a constant source of water to keep it cool. The official said the facility was a North Korean design in its construction, the technology present and the ability to put it all together.

It was North Korean “expertise,” said the official, meaning the Syrians must have had “human” help from North Korea.

A light water reactor designed by North Koreans could be constructed to specifically produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.

When the Israelis came to the CIA with the pictures, the U.S. then got the site’s coordinates and backed it up with very detailed satellite imagery of its own, and pinpointed “drop points” to determine what would be needed to target it.

The Israelis urged the U.S. government to destroy the complex, and the U.S. started looking at options about how to destroy the facility: Targeters were assembled, and officials contemplated a special forces raid using helicopters, which would mean inserting forces to collect data and then blow the site up.

That option would have been very daring, the official says, because of the distance from the border and the amount of explosives it would take to take down the facility.

The options were considered, but according to the official, word came back from the White House that the United States was not interested in carrying out the raid.

But as ABC News reported in July, the Israelis made the decision to take the facility out themselves, though the U.S. urged them not to. The Bush administration, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates leading the way, said the Israelis and the U.S. should “confront not attack.”

The official said the facility had been there at least eight months before the strike, but because of the lack of fissionable material, the United States hesitated on the attack because it couldn’t be absolutely proved that it was a nuclear site.

But the official told ABC News, “It was unmistakable what it was going to be. There is no doubt in my mind.”



Israel used electronic attack in air strike against Syrian mystery target
By David A. Fulghum and Douglas Barrie
Aviation Week
October 8, 2007

Mysteries still surround Israel’s air strike against Syria. Where was the attack, what was struck and how did Israel’s non-stealthy warplanes fly undetected through the Russian-made air defense radars in Syria?

There also are clues that while the U.S. and Israel are struggling in the broader information war with Islamic fundamentalists, Tel Aviv’s air attack against a “construction site” in northern Syria may mean the two countries are beginning to win some cyberwar battles.

U.S. officials say that close examination of the few details of the mission offers a glimpse of what’s new in the world of sophisticated electronic sleight-of-hand. That said, they fault the Pentagon for not moving more quickly to make cyberwarfare operational and for not integrating the capability into the U.S. military forces faster.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said last week that the Israelis struck a building site at Tall al-Abyad just south of the Turkish border on Sept. 6. Press reports from the region say witnesses saw the Israeli aircraft approach from the Mediterranean Sea while others said they found unmarked drop tanks in Turkey near the border with Syria. Israeli defense officials finally admitted Oct. 2 that the Israeli Air Force made the raid.

U.S. aerospace industry and retired military officials indicated the Israelis utilized a technology like the U.S.-developed “Suter” airborne network attack system developed by BAE Systems and integrated into U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle operations by L-3 Communications. Israel has long been adept at using unmanned systems to provoke and spoof Syrian surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, as far back as the Bekka Valley engagements in 1982.

Air Force officials will often talk about jamming, but the term now involves increasingly sophisticated techniques such as network attack and information warfare. How many of their new electronic attack options were mixed and matched to pull off this raid is not known.

The U.S. version of the system has been at the very least tested operationally in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last year, most likely against insurgent communication networks. The technology allows users to invade communications networks, see what enemy sensors see and even take over as systems administrator so sensors can be manipulated into positions where approaching aircraft can’t be seen, they say. The process involves locating enemy emitters with great precision and then directing data streams into them that can include false targets and misleading messages that allow a number of activities including control.

Clues, both good and unlikely, are found in Middle East press reports. At least one places some responsibility for the attack’s success on the U.S.

After the strike, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Watan reported that U.S. jets provided aerial cover for Israeli strike aircraft during the attack on Syria. Similar statements of American involvement were made by Egyptian officials after the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel.

More interesting is the newspaper’s claim that “Russian experts are studying why the two state-of-the-art Russian-built radar systems in Syria did not detect the Israeli jets entering Syrian territory,” it said. “Iran reportedly has asked the same question, since it is buying the same systems and might have paid for the Syrian acquisitions.”

Syria’s most recent confirmed procurement was of the Tor-M1 (SA-15 Gauntlet) short-range mobile SAM system. It uses vehicle-mounted target-acquisition and target-tracking radars. It is not known whether any of the Tor systems were deployed in the point-defense role at the target site struck by Israeli aircraft. If, however, the target was as “high-value” as the Israeli raid would suggest, then Tor systems could well have been deployed.

Iran bought 29 of the Tor launchers from Russia for $750 million to guard its nuclear sites, and they were delivered in January, according to Agence France-Presse and ITAR-TASS. According to the Syrian press, they were tested in February. Syria has also upgraded some of its aging S-125s (SA-3 Goa) to the Pechora-2A standard. This upgrade swaps out obsolete analog components for digital.

Syrian air defense infrastructure is based on for the most part aging Soviet SAMs and associated radar. Damascus has been trying to acquire more capable “strategic” air defense systems, with the country repeatedly associated with efforts to purchase the Russian S-300 (SA-10 Grumble/SA-20) long-range SAM. It also still operates the obsolescent S-200 (SA-5 Gammon) long-range system and its associated 5N62 Square Pair target engagement radar. There are also unconfirmed reports of Syrian interest in the 36D6 Tin Shield search radar.

There remains the second mystery of the actual site of the target and its use. Israeli news reports contend it was a compound near Dayr az-Zwar in north central Syria, and not Tall al-Abyad farther north. The site of the attack has been described as a transshipment point for weapons intended for Hezbollah in Lebanon to restock missile stores that were used in last summer’s fighting with Israel. Others contend it is a site with nuclear materials that may be associated with Iran’s nuclear bomb program. Mentions are also made of a North Korean ship arriving in Syria only days before the attack and the presence of North Korean workers in Syria for several months.

“There are always indications the North Koreans are doing something they shouldn’t, Vice Adm. Robert Murrett, director of the National Geospatial-intelligence Agency (NGA), told Aviation Week & Space Technology in response to a question about the shipment of nuclear materials from North Korea to Syria, which were subsequently bombed. “They are a high priority. We work as a key element . . . on the trafficking of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and high-interest arms shipments anyplace.”

It’s part of a growing NGA role in spotting the proliferation of weapons technology “which may be coming from East Asia to the Middle East … that we don’t want to cross borders.” Other crucial boundaries for surveillance include the borders in all directions in Afghanistan and Iraq – which includes Syria and Iran – as well as semi-governed areas such as the Horn of Africa. The use of automation to aid rapid analysis is improving, but that’s being balanced by the fact that “the sheer volumes of data we are ingesting now . . . continue to increase by a couple of orders of magnitude on an annual basis,” he says.



Syrians disassembling ruins at site bombed by Israel, officials say
By Robin Wright and Joby Warrick
The Washington Post
October 19, 2007

Syria has begun dismantling the remains of a site Israel bombed Sept. 6 in what may be an attempt to prevent the location from coming under international scrutiny, said U.S. and foreign officials familiar with the aftermath of the attack.

Based on overhead photography, the officials say the site in Syria’s eastern desert near the Euphrates River had a “signature” or characteristics of a small but substantial nuclear reactor, one similar in structure to North Korea’s facilities.

The dismantling of the damaged site, which appears to be still underway, could make it difficult for weapons inspectors to determine the precise nature of the facility and how Syria planned to use it. Syria, which possesses a small reactor used for scientific research, has denied seeking to expand its nuclear program. But U.S. officials knowledgeable about the Israeli raid have described the target as a nuclear facility being constructed with North Korean assistance.

The bombed facility is different from the one Syria displayed to journalists last week to back its allegations that Israel had bombed an essentially an empty building, said the officials, who insisted on anonymity because details of the Israeli attack are classified.

While U.S. officials express increasing confidence that the Syrian facility was nuclear-related, divisions persist within the government and among weapons experts over the significance of the threat. If the facility was a nuclear reactor, U.S. weapons experts said it would almost certainly have taken Syria several years to complete the structure, and much longer to produce significant quantities of plutonium for potential use in nuclear weapons. Nuclear reactors also are used to generate electricity.

“This isn’t like a Road Runner cartoon where you call up Acme Reactors and they deliver a functioning reactor to your back yard. It takes years to build,” said Joseph Cirincione, director for nuclear policy at the Center for American Progress. “This is an extremely demanding technology, and I don’t think Syria has the technical, engineering or financial base to really support such a reactor.”

While expressing concern over the prospect that Syria may have decided to launch a nuclear program in secret, some weapons experts question why neither Israel nor the United States made any effort before the secret attack -- or in the six weeks since -- to offer evidence to the International Atomic Energy Agency, a move that would trigger an inspection of Syria by the nuclear watchdog.

“The reason we have an IAEA and a safeguard system is that, if there is evidence of wrongdoing, it can be presented by a neutral body to the international community so that a collective response can be pursued,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “It seems to me highly risky and premature for another country to bomb such a facility.”

But John R. Bolton, the Bush administration’s former ambassador to the United Nations, said Syria’s secrecy – including its apparent move to clean up the site after the bombing –suggests that Damascus is pursuing a strategy similar to that of Iran, which the Bush administration believes is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. Bolton said Iran once attempted to conceal nuclear activity from IAEA inspectors by bulldozing nuclear-related buildings and even digging up nearby topsoil to remove all traces of nuclear material.

“The common practice for people with legitimate civilian nuclear power programs is to be transparent, because they have nothing to hide,” Bolton said.

The IAEA has not been provided any evidence about the Syrian facility and has been unable to obtain any reliable details about the Sept. 6 strike, said a European diplomat familiar with the agency’s internal discussions.

Syria is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has cooperated with IAEA inspections of the small, 27-kilowatt research facility it has run for decades, IAEA sources said.

Some experts speculate that Israeli and U.S. officials may have calculated that reporting their intelligence to the IAEA would have produced only limited repercussions, the equivalent of a diplomatic slap on the wrist to Syria, which might have decided to build the facility anyway.

Foreign sources familiar with the attack say Israel wanted to send a strong message to Iran about the price of developing a secret nuclear program. Israel is increasingly alarmed about Iran’s intentions and frustrated that the international community has not persuaded Tehran to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

If North Korea is shown to have helped with the construction of a Syrian reactor, it would suggest that the Pyongyang government has been secretly hawking its nuclear know-how to the Syrians for years, several experts said. But even if North Korea’s involvement is proved, it is unlikely that the Bush administration would halt negotiations with Pyongyang over dismantling its nuclear program, the experts said.

“The Bush administration has clearly decided not to let this incident deter them from trying to limit North Korea’s nuclear activity,” said Gary Samore, a National Security Council member under President Bill Clinton who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations.



Israel hit unfinished Syrian nukes reactor says report
AFP (Agence France Presse)
October 15, 2007

WASHINGTON – The air raid on Syria conducted by Israel last month targeted a site that Israeli and U.S. intelligence specialists believe was a partly-constructed nuclear reactor that may have been modeled after one in North Korea, The New York Times reported today.

Citing unnamed U.S. and foreign officials with access to the intelligence reports, the newspaper said it appeared Israel carried out the September 6 raid to demonstrate its determination to snuff out even a nascent nuclear project in a neighboring state.

The administration of President George W. Bush was divided about the strike, and some senior policymakers still regard it as premature, the report said.

The facility that the Israelis struck in Syria appears to have been much further from completion than the Osirak nuclear reactor that Israel destroyed in Iraq in 1981, the paper said.

Officials said it would have been years before the Syrians could have used the reactor to produce the spent nuclear fuel that could, through a series of additional steps, be reprocessed into bomb-grade plutonium, according to The Times.

In Washington and Israel, the raid has been shrouded in secrecy and information restricted to few officials, while the Israeli press has been prohibited from publishing information about the attack, the report said.

The officials did not say that the Bush administration had ultimately opposed the Israeli strike, but that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were particularly concerned about the ramifications of a preemptive strike in the absence of an urgent threat, the paper said.



Condoleezza Rice opposed Israel’s attack on Syrian nuclear site
By Sarah Baxter
The (London) Sunday Times
October 7, 2007

A mysterious Israeli military strike on a suspected nuclear site in Syria last month was opposed by Condoleezza Rice, the American secretary of state, because she feared it would destabilise the region, according to a report this weekend.

Rice persuaded the Israelis to delay their operation, but not to call it off, after U.S. officials were presented with “jaw-dropping” evidence of Syrian nuclear activity, the report said.

The Sunday Times revealed two weeks ago that Israeli commandos had seized samples of nuclear material, said to be of North Korean origin, during a daring raid on a Syrian military facility to prove to the Americans that an air attack was essential.

According to ABC News, Rice led the opposition inside the Bush administration to the Israeli strike, persuading them to shelve initial plans to hit the Syrian facility in the week of July 14.

The nuclear samples seized by ground commandos remain unidentified, but defence and intelligence sources in Washington believe they may have been connected to uranium enrichment.

Ilan Berman, a Middle East expert at the American Foreign Policy Council, said: “The consensus is that Israel struck a nuclear facility and the probability is that it was linked to enriching uranium.”

One report claimed the Syrian plant may have been intended to produce plutonium, but some experts doubt that, saying it would require the presence of a reactor.

The North Koreans have acknowledged producing plutonium at their plant at Yongbyon but have been evasive about a possible uranium enrichment programme, said to have begun with aid from a network overseen by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the so-called father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb.

The U.S. state department is sending a team of experts to North Korea on Tuesday to begin disabling the Yongbyon reactor, as agreed during six-nation talks last week. Sean McCor-mack, the State Department spokesman, said the reactor should be disabled by the end of the year.

President George W Bush said North Korea had committed “not to transfer nuclear materials, technology or know-how beyond its borders” and that it would make a complete declaration of all its nuclear programmes and proliferation activity. He authorised the release of $25m in aid to the North Koreans, covering the cost of nearly 50,000 tons of fuel.

Concern remains, however, over the existence of a possible secret North Korean uranium enrichment programme. Christopher Hill, the State Department’s chief negotiator, said it was important to have a “complete resolution” of the issue. “If it turns out they (the North Koreans) have a uranium enrichment facility, it will have to be disabled,” Hill said.

According to U.S. intelligence, Syria is believed to have received centrifuges for producing enriched uranium from the Khan network several years ago, prompting the CIA to report to Congress in 2004 that it viewed “Syrian nuclear intentions with growing concern”.



Israeli commandos “nuclear” raid
By Uzi Mahnaimi, Tel Aviv, Sarah Baxter, Washington, and Michael Sheridan
The (London) Sunday Times
September 23, 2007

ISRAELI commandos from the elite Sayeret Matkal unit – almost certainly dressed in Syrian uniforms – made their way stealthily towards a secret military compound near Dayr az-Zawr in northern Syria. They were looking for proof that Syria and North Korea were collaborating on a nuclear programme.

Israel had been surveying the site for months, according to Washington and Israeli sources. President George W Bush was told during the summer that Israeli intelligence suggested North Korean personnel and nuclear-related material were at the Syrian site.

Israel was determined not to take any chances with its neighbour. Following the example set by its raid on an Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak 1981, it drew up plans to bomb the Syrian compound.

But Washington was not satisfied. It demanded clear evidence of nuclear-related activities before giving the operation its blessing. The task of the commandos was to provide it.

Today the site near Dayr az-Zawr lies in ruins after it was pounded by Israeli F15Is on September 6. Before the Israelis issued the order to strike, the commandos had secretly seized samples of nuclear material and taken them back into Israel for examination by scientists, the sources say. A laboratory confirmed that the unspecified material was North Korean in origin. America approved an attack.

News of the secret ground raid is the latest piece of the jigsaw to emerge about the mysterious Israeli airstrike. Israel has imposed a news blackout, but has not disguised its satisfaction with the mission. The incident also reveals the extent of the cooperation between America and Israel over nuclear-related security issues in the Middle East. The attack on what Israeli defence sources now call the “North Korean project” appears to be part of a wider, secret war against the nonconventional weapons ambitions of Syria and North Korea which, along with Iran, appears to have been forging a new “axis of evil”.

The operation was personally directed by Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, who is said to have been largely preoccupied with it since taking up his post on June 18.

It was the ideal mission for Barak, Israel’s most decorated soldier and legendary former commander of the Sayeret Matkal, which shares the motto “Who Dares Wins” with Britain’s SAS and specialises in intelligence-gathering deep behind enemy lines.

President Bush refused to comment on the air attack last week, but warned North Korea that “the exportation of information and/or materials” could jeopardise plans to give North Korea food aid, fuel and diplomatic recognition in exchange for ending its nuclear programmes.

Diplomats in North Korea and China said they believed a number of North Koreans were killed in the raid, noting that ballistic missile technicians and military scientists had been working for some time with the Syrians.

A senior Syrian official, Sayeed Elias Daoud, director of the Syrian Arab Ba’ath party, flew to North Korea via Beijing last Thursday, reinforcing the belief among foreign diplomats that the two nations are coordinating their response to the Israeli strike.

The growing assumption that North Korea suffered direct casualties in the raid appears to be based largely on the regime’s unusually strident propaganda on an issue far from home. But there were also indications of conversations between Chinese and North Korean officials and intelligence reports reaching Asian governments that supported the same conclusion, diplomats said.

Jane’s Defence Weekly reported last week that dozens of Iranian engineers and Syrians were killed in July attempting to load a chemical warhead containing mustard gas onto a Scud missile. The Scuds and warheads are of North Korean design and possibly manufacture, and there are recent reports that North Koreans were helping the Syrians to attach airburst chemical weapons to warheads.

Yesterday, while Israelis were observing Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the military was on high alert after Syria promised to retaliate for the September 6 raid. An Israeli intelligence expert said: “Syria has retaliated in the past for much smaller humiliations, but they will choose the place, the time and the target.”

Critics of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, believe he has shown poor judgment since succeeding his father Hafez, Syria’s long-time dictator, in 2000. According to David Schenker, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, he has provoked the enmity of almost all Syria’s neighbours and turned his country into a “client” of Iran.

Barak’s return to government after making a fortune in private business was critical to the Israeli operation. Military experts believe it could not have taken place under Amir Peretz, the defence minister who was forced from the post after last year’s ill-fated war in Lebanon. “Barak gave Olmert the confidence needed for such a dangerous operation,” said one insider.

The unusual silence about the airstrikes amazed Israelis, who are used to talkative politicians. But it did not surprise the defence community. “Most Israeli special operations remain unknown,” said a defence source.

When Menachem Begin, then Israeli prime minister, broke the news of the 1981 Osirak raid, he was accused of trying to help his Likud party’s prospects in forthcoming elections.

Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads Likud today, faced similar criticism last week when he ignored the news blackout, revealed that he had backed the decision to strike and said he had congratulated Olmert. “I was a partner from the start,” he claimed.

But details of the raid are still tantalisingly incomplete. Some analysts in America are perplexed by photographs of a fuel tank said to have been dropped from an Israeli jet on its return journey over Turkey. It appears to be relatively undamaged. Could it have been planted to sow confusion about the route taken by the Israeli F-15I pilots?

More importantly, questions remain about the precise nature of the material seized and about Syria’s intentions. Was Syria hiding North Korean nuclear equipment while Pyongyang prepared for six-party talks aimed at securing an end to its nuclear weapons programme in return for security guarantees and aid? Did Syria want to arm its own Scuds with a nuclear device?

Or could the material have been destined for Iran as John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has suggested? And just how deep is Syrian and North Korean nuclear cooperation anyway?

China abruptly postponed a session of the nuclear disarmament talks last week because it feared America might confront the North Koreans over their weapons deals with Syria, according to sources close to the Chinese foreign ministry. Negotiations have been rescheduled for this Thursday in Beijing after assurances were given that all sides wished them to be “constructive”.

Christopher Hill, the U.S. State Department negotiator, is said to have persuaded the White House that the talks offered a realistic chance to accomplish a peace treaty formally ending the 1950-1953 Korean war, in which more than 50,000 Americans died. A peace deal of that magnitude would be a coup for Bush – but only if the North Koreans genuinely abandon their nuclear programmes.

The outlines of a long-term arms relationship between the North Koreans and the Syrians are now being reexamined by intelligence experts in several capitals. Diplomats in Pyongyang have said they believe reports that about a dozen Syrian technicians were killed in a massive explosion and railway crash in North Korea on April 22, 2004.

Teams of military personnel wearing protective suits were seen removing debris from the section of the train in which the Syrians were travelling, according to a report quoting military sources that appeared in a Japanese newspaper. Their bodies were flown home by a Syrian military cargo plane that was spotted shortly after the explosion at Pyongyang airport.

In December last year, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Seyassah quoted European intelligence sources in Brussels as saying that Syria was engaged in an advanced nuclear programme in its northeastern province.

Most diplomats and experts dismiss the idea that Syria could master the technical and industrial knowhow to make its own nuclear devices. The vital question is whether North Korea could have transferred some of its estimated 55 kilos of weapons-grade plutonium to Syria. Six to eight kilos are enough for one rudimentary bomb.

“If it is proved that Kim Jong-il sold fissile material to Syria in breach of every red line the Americans have drawn for him, what does that mean?” asked one official. The results of tests on whatever the Israelis may have seized from the Syrian site could therefore be of enormous significance.

The Israeli army has so far declined to comment on the attack. However, several days afterwards, at a gathering marking the Jewish new year, the commander-in-chief of the Israeli military shook hands with and congratulated his generals. The scene was broadcast on Israeli television. After the fiasco in Lebanon last year, it was regarded as a sign that “we’re back in business, guys”.



High-level North Korean official meets Syrian PM in Damascus
The Associated Press
October 22, 2007

A high-level North Korean official held talks in Damascus with Syria’s Prime Minister Naji Otari and discussed ways of developing mutual cooperation in different fields, state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said.

The visit Sunday by Choe Thae Bok, the speaker of North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament, comes amid lingering suspicions that North Korea may be providing nuclear assistance to Syria.

Israel Air Force planes struck a target in Syria on Sept. 6., and Western news media have quoted unidentified U.S. officials as saying the strike hit some sort of nuclear facility linked to North Korea, which is now in the process of dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

On Friday, The Washington Post cited American officials as saying the site had characteristics of a small but substantial nuclear reactor similar to North Korea’s facility. Syria said an unused military building was hit.

North Korea provides missile technology to Syria but has strongly denied accusations that it spreads its nuclear expertise beyond its borders. Syria also has denied receiving any North Korean nuclear help or embarking on any nuclear program.

The two countries have accused U.S. officials of spreading the allegations for political reasons.

SANA said that Choe told Otari during the talks that North Korea stands by Syria in facing the challenges and supports its legitimate efforts to return the occupied Syrian Golan. The strategic Golan Heights were captured by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The two officials discussed mutual cooperation between the two countries and ways of developing them in the economic, commercial and social fields, SANA said.

The meeting came a day after Choe held separate talks in Damascus with Abdullah al-Ahmar and Mohammed Saeed Bkheitan, both assistant heads of the ruling Baath Party command.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.