The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

An enigma wrapped in a riddle shrouded in mystery…


October 11, 2007

…if anything happened at all (?)

The mystery raid by Israeli planes against some sort of target in Syria last month continues to confuse and mystify. The just as it starts to get quiet and recede into the background, a new series of facts emerge to renew interest in the event. Just as a semi-coherent account starts to emerge, something else comes out that throws a spanner into the whole works.

Today is no different.

To recap: Some Israeli planes crossed into Syrian airspace and did something. Neither Israel nor Syria really want to discuss it all that much, except for the fact that neither can really let it go. The initial speculation was that Israel did strike some target in Syria, either a nuclear site (supplied by North Korea), or a missile site, or some sort of Hezbollah related arms shipment / cache. The nuclear angle remains highly debated, in no small part as blowback from the Iraq WMD fiasco.

Now we learn a couple of interesting things. First, it seems clear that Israel thinks it was hitting a nuclear related site. Second, the Bush Administration knew of this, but was deeply divided as to the credibility and significance of the intel. Third, the attack revealed a new military capability to disable Syrian air defenses. Finally, nothing happened at all.

The Israeli government was seriously concerned with what it assessed as a significant nuclear threat from Syria. Its a situation they had been watching closely for some time and they were determined to take action:

[C]urrent and former American officials said Israel presented the United States with intelligence over the summer about what it described as nuclear activity in Syria. Officials have said Israel told the White House shortly in advance of the September raid that it was prepared to carry it out, but it is not clear whether the White House took a position then about whether the attack was justified.

One former top Bush administration official said Israeli officials were so concerned about the threat posed by a potential Syrian nuclear program that they told the White House they could not wait past the end of the summer to strike the facility.

Last week, Turkish officials traveled to Damascus to present the Syrian government with the Israeli dossier on what was believed to be a Syrian nuclear program, according to a Middle East security analyst in Washington.

The question, of course, remains–how good is this Intel that the Israelis have? Following the massive intelligence, analytical, and policy failure on Iraq’s WMD program prior to the invasion, some folks are rightly skeptical. This includes members of the Bush Administration who were briefed on Israel’s concern. Some US officials described the Israeli intelligence on the Syrian facility as “jaw dropping.” But, as usual:

The debate has fractured along now-familiar fault lines, with Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative hawks in the administration portraying the Israeli intelligence as credible and arguing that it should cause the United States to reconsider its diplomatic overtures to Syria and North Korea.

By contrast, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her allies within the administration have said they do not believe that the intelligence presented so far merits any change in the American diplomatic approach.

“Some people think that it means that the sky is falling,” a senior administration official said. “Others say that they’re not convinced that the real intelligence poses a threat.”

Several current and former officials, as well as outside experts, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the intelligence surrounding the Israeli strike remains highly classified.

Besides Ms. Rice, officials said that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was cautious about fully endorsing Israeli warnings that Syria was on a path that could lead to a nuclear weapon. Others in the Bush administration remain unconvinced that a nascent Syrian nuclear program could pose an immediate threat.

Reading between the lines a bit, I think that the key dispute inside the administration is less over the substance of the intelligence–a Syrian weapons facility developing new capabilities for Syria–and more over the policy (US policy in particular) implications of that fact. In other words, how should the US ascribe meaning to this ‘fact.’ Should the US change course, and alter policies or should the Administration let it roll like water off a duck’s back.

Third, Israel apparently deployed a new electronic warfare capability that disabled Syria’s Russian built air defense system. According to Aviation Week:

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…

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.

This is cutting-edge stuff, not something you roll out for a training exercise or routine interdiction. Its signaling that a) this is important and b) those new state of the art Russian air defense systems you’re investing in (Syria, Iran) aren’t quite as good as advertised…

But finally, all this may be moot– Syria is now saying that nothing happened–a Syrian government official, leading journalists to the alleged site said:

“There was no raid here — we heard nothing,“

Though Syria initially protested the raid, they have backed off significantly, downplaying the event.

President Bashar al-Assad, in a recent interview with the BBC, played down the Israeli raid, saying that Israeli jets took aim at empty military buildings, but he did not give a specific location. His statement differed from the initial Syrian claim that it had repulsed the air raid before an attack occurred.

There’s nothing to see here, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

What’s Syria got to hide?

It remains a mystery wrapped in a riddle shrouded in an enigma….

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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.