The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Clear Images Produce a Cloudy Picture


October 28, 2007

This week new information emerged in the ongoing mystery as to what Israel bombed in Syria several months ago—much anticipated satellite imagery of the suspect site. These pictures below, originally printed in the NY Times, are commercial imagery, analyzed by David Albright at the Institute for Science and International Security (pdf of his report here). They show the critical before and after pictures—before the strike and just recently.* The smoking gun?

Sort of. Its clear that something was there, and, interestingly, its clear that Syria doesn’t want to discuss it—they’ve apparently already cleaned the site, plowing over whatever they had initially build. As the NYT reported:

“It’s clearly very suspicious,” said Joseph Cirincione, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “The Syrians were up to something that they clearly didn’t want the world to know about.”

Mr. Cirincione said the photographic evidence “tilts toward a nuclear program,”

but of course, no one can be certain. There are some buildings, they layout of the before pictures bears some of the signs of a nuclear site, but we can’t see into the buildings and have no idea what went on there. The images, Albright told the NYT, are “consistent with being a North Korean reactor design.” But consistent is not certain.

Syria’s action—totally dismantling whatever was there—only serves to fuel the suspicion. Its clear they don’t want to discuss the specifics of the incident, it certainly suggests they have something to hide, and encourages speculation that they want this incident to just go away.

Thus the mystery grows. William Arkin of Early Warning sees three possibilities:

1. Israel actually did bomb a nascent Syrian nuclear program. The photos suggest as much. He is suspicious:

But, it’s hard to believe that Syria, possibly with the help of North Korea, is stupid enough to think it could build a nuclear reactor and get away with it.

2. Israel thought it bombed a nuclear site, but acted on faulty intelligence and erred.

3. It’s a red herring, ‘cover’ for something else. But what?

I’m inclined to side with the possible nuclear site for a couple of reasons. First, this attack was a serious risk. Tensions between Israel and Syria had been rising recently. In authorizing this mission, Israel certainly had to appreciate the risk that Syria could and might retaliate—either directly across the border in the Golan or through Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Either would be costly for Israel and could easily risk war. So, I don’t think that this was an action Israel undertook lightly. They clearly thought that there was something extremely serious in Syria. The stakes are just a bit too high for them to have undertaken this for much less. Second, Syria clearly has something to hide. This situation is ripe for exploitation domestically and across the so-called “Arab Street.” They did offer a few faint protests, but where is the outcry? Where is the Syrian propaganda? The ‘cleaning’ of the site furthers this idea—Syria knows that this would be observable from overhead photography, and they cleaned the site rather thoroughly and quickly. Third, where’s the outrage? None of the other Arab states have said a thing. At one point in time, any Israeli attack on an Arab state would produce instant denunciations. Here? Nothing. Apparently some of Syria’s supposed friends aren’t all that upset. The only country to have said anything? North Korea. Finally, the US has been suspiciously quiet. Former Administration officials have intimated that it was a nuclear site and that North Korea might be involved. Its clear top US officials knew all about this strike and they have been unusually quiet about the whole thing. No confirmations, no denials.

How confident am I of this? Maybe a 4 out of 10.

Still, the only thing on which there is a clear consensus is that something significant happened about which there are more questions than answers.

Arms Control Wonk:

In short, we don’t know what the site was, what (or who) survived the strike, and where it is now.

Syria Comment:

There are many too many unanswered questions.


Until we see evidence that Israel bombed something, it’s fair to assume that there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.

Stay tuned until we get the next peek behind the scenes.

*On a side note, this imagery, in and of itself, I think is nothing short of amazing. Here you have what used to be the most precious intelligence gathering capability, limited to only a few space-faring states, now a commercial technology that anyone can use. While these images aren’t as high-quality as the best US spy satellites, they are pretty darn good and available to anyone who cares to buy them and learn the art of photo interpretation.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.