The Duck of Minerva

The Plot Thickens…


23 September 2007

The controversy over the Israeli raid into Syria rages on. The Sunday Times has peeled back another layer of the onion, one that only deepens the mystery as to what Israel actually bombed in northern Syria. This latest tidbit seems to support the notion that it was in fact a North Korean supplied nuclear site in Syria. If true, it is perhaps only the tip of a much larger iceberg, and per Landis:

“If this story is true,” a Syrian friend of mine just told me, “Asad should fire his top generals, instantly.”

The Times reports:

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.

Now that’s a bold move, to say the least. It also means that 1) There is much more, and more tangible, evidence behind this raid–evidence that could be revealed in the future with diligent reporting; 2) US involvement is much more significant than previously thought–it seems the US had to green-light the raid, it didn’t just get a courtesy notice; and 3) this maybe part of a much larger problem for both the US and Israel, namely much more aggressive North Korean nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.

The extent of North Korea’s involvement remains unclear, but indirect evidence seems to be emerging that it was more than just cursory. The Times reported:

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.

How solid this is, who knows…. But, it appears more credible than former Bush Administration officials with an ax to grind. It also suggests that this is not a neo-con fantasy story to drive policy or launch a war. Rather, its indicative of a very very serious problem–not just for the US, but for Asia, the Middle East, and any other countries concerned about Nuclear Proliferation.

Still, as the Times report notes, there remain far more questions than answers.

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 US ambassador to the United Nations, has suggested? And just how deep is Syrian and North Korean nuclear cooperation anyway?

And, if it is actual proliferating, which crosses a clear Red Line the Bush Administration has put in place for North Korea, how does the US respond? Its a critical question of US credibility in this case–this kind of proliferation is the thing the US fears most from a North Korean nuclear program, the kind of thing the Agreed Framework, Six Party Talks, and recent nuclear deal are meant to avoid.

With juicy nuggets like the one reported by the Times, this story and its political and policy fall-out certainly aren’t going away any time soon.