How Israel Dealt With the Syrian Nuclear Threat
A defensive strike against an enemy rogue state.
By Joseph Puder
The current debate in Washington regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and in particular, the North Korean testing of its hydrogen bomb, has created serious anxieties, and much pondering among the U.S. decision makers. One option might be the Israeli model of obliterating the enemy’s nuclear facility before it is operational. This is precisely what Israel did on September 6, 2007. A decade later it is safe to say that the Middle East would have been in a catastrophic situation had Israel not destroyed the Syrian nuclear reactor.
According to foreign press reports, the Israeli Air-Force attacked the Syrian nuclear facility during the night between September 5th & 6th, 2007. The nuclear reactor secretly built in northeastern Syria by the North Korean regime was attacked by “mysterious” aircrafts that destroyed an isolated structure in the desert. No country assumed responsibility for the attack, and the Israeli media was mum about it. Foreign press and the then George W. Bush administration officials reported that it was Israeli fighter planes that attacked the nuclear facility.
According to later research pieces by the New Yorker magazine, intelligence about the Syrian nuclear reactor reached the late Meir Dagan, who was then the chief of the Mossad. The New Yorker story by David Makovsky (September 17, 2012) suggested that, “In the first days of March, 2007, agents from the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, made a daring raid on the Vienna home of Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission. Othman was in town attending a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) board of governors, and had stepped out. In less than an hour, the Mossad operatives swept in, extracted top-secret information from Othman’s computer, and left without a trace.”
The secret materials the Mossad agents were able to extract included photos of the Syrian nuclear reactor. Israel had a smoking-gun that it shared with the U.S. The Bush administration was now persuaded that the nuclear reactor had to be destroyed. The failure of the U.S. intelligence community to accurately verify the existence of nuclear weapons in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, made President Bush hesitant about taking military action in Syria. Nevertheless, the U.S. administration was able to keep the information secret, without leaks to the media. Robert Gates, the U.S. Secretary of Defense at that time (2007), quipped to his senior aide, Eric Edelman (served as U.S. ambassador to Turkey), that “Every administration gets one preemptive war against a Muslim country, and this administration has already done one.” He was referring to Iraq.
According to the New Yorker “The information that the Mossad operatives recovered was damning: roughly three dozen color photographs taken from inside the Syrian building, indicated that it was a top-secret plutonium nuclear reactor. The reactor, called Al Kibar, was nine hundred yards from the Euphrates River and half way between the borders with Turkey and Iraq. The photographs showed workers from the North Korean site, which was far from Syria’s biggest cities. The sole purpose of this kind of plutonium reactor, in the Mossad’s analysis, was to produce an atomic bomb. Inside, the reactor had many of the same engineering elements as the North Korean reactor in Yongbyon – a model that no one but the North Koreans had built in the past thirty-five years.”
In June, 2007, according to the New Yorker, “an Israeli special operations unit had been dispatched to within a mile of the site to take and transmit additional photos, bring back soil samples, and provide Israel with other information it needed for a strike.”
Foreign press reported that shortly before midnight on September 5th, 2007, four Israeli F-15s and four F-16s took off from their bases. After flying north along the Mediterranean Coast, the planes turned east and followed the Syrian-Turkish border to avoid detection by radar. They used electronic jamming devices to blind Syria’s air-defense system, and headed toward the Syrian reactor. From a distance, they fired accurate guided-missiles, and within minutes the reactor was completely destroyed. Israel’s attacks of the nuclear facilities both in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, took place before nuclear fission could be released to contaminate large swaths of land and water, including the Euphrates River.
The Syrian regime, embarrassed about its impotence to detect or destroy the Israeli fighter-jets, issued a short, terse communique that falsely claimed that Syria’s air-defenses chased away the attacking Israeli planes, who then dropped their load of munitions in the desert. The official Syrian government, however, remained silent. Israel’s silence, it turned out, allowed Bashar Assad, the Syrian dictator, to stick to the denial of the bombing, and thus avoided an excuse for a retaliation strike against Israel.
It is worth noting that in 1981, the Israeli Air Force destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad. Israel’s Prime Minister at the time, Menachem Begin, a Holocaust survivor and famous commander of the Irgun underground that fought the British Mandate for Israel’s independence, inaugurated the Begin doctrine, which held that no Israeli adversary in the Middle East should be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon, especially the radical dictatorships of the Arab Middle East (and Iran today). Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Bashar Assad’s Syria, definitely fit the description of radical dictatorship. Both used chemical weapons against their own citizens, and would not have hesitated to use nuclear weapons against the Jewish state.
A decade ago, before the bloody Syrian civil war, Israel considered Syria a viable military threat. The Israel Defense Forces prepared for a military confrontation with the Syrian army. Over six years of civil war reduced the effectiveness of the Syrian armed forces, and it is no longer considered an existential threat to Israel. Military analysts claim that it would take years for Bashar Assad to rebuild his army. While Assad’s army has been substantially weakened, Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist organization’s capabilities have been significantly strengthened. Hezbollah today poses a major threat to Israel with its over 100,000 missiles, and other sophisticated arms it has received from Iran and Russia. Israel cannot ignore the fact that thousands of Hezbollah fighters are currently fighting in Syria to preserve Assad’s rule, and that the threat from Hezbollah is now from two fronts: Syria and southern Lebanon.
Analysts in Israel are suggesting that the next confrontation in northern Israel will not be with Hezbollah alone, but with a larger array of forces that might include Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Iraqi and Afghani Shiite militias, and the Syrian army. Foreign press reports have pointed out that on numerous occasions, Israel has attacked transports of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah in Syria. Israel however, has not assumed responsibility for these attacks. Only once did Israel acknowledge an attack, and that was when a Syrian missile targeted an Israeli jet-fighter. However, an Israeli Arrow missile destroyed the Syrian missile. One can only imagine Assad’s response had he possessed a nuclear bomb…
The U.S. “missed the boat” in dealing with North Korea, as it is likely to do with Iran. Although circumstances are not the same for the U.S. and Israel, the principle of a defensive strike against enemy rogue states are lawful. In the absence of any centralized global enforcement capability, international law must inevitably rely upon the willingness of certain individual states to act forcefully on behalf of the international community, not to mention self-preservation. That is what Israel did in 1981 and 2007, which the U.S. failed to do with North Korea and Iran during the early stages of their nuclear buildup.