Strike in the Dark

by Peter

11 February 2008, 2117 EST

For the past 5 months, I’ve been following the strange story of Israel’s bombing of a mysterious site in Syria. In this month’s New Yorker, Seymour Hersh has an excellent look into the subject. Hersh takes a round-up of the major media stories of the event, analyzing how they advance the narrative of the episode, and adds some first-rate reporting from Israel, Syria, and Washington. While his article sheds new and important light on the subject, at its core, it remains a mystery:

Morton Abramowitz, a former Assistant Secretary of State for intelligence and research, told me that he was astonished by the lack of response. “Anytime you bomb another state, that’s a big deal,” he said. “But where’s the outcry, particularly from the concerned states and the U.N.? Something’s amiss.”

Israel could, of course, have damning evidence that it refuses to disclose. But there are serious and unexamined contradictions in the various published accounts of the September 6th bombing.

Hersh reviews the assertions–some questionable, some reasonable–that it was a nuclear site and leaves the distinct impression that at best, this was highly educated guessing. The Israeli officials he interviewed insisted that “something” was there, but offer no more. Even if one is willing to concede that the target was questionable in its nuclear status, the central mystery remains:

If the Israelis’ target in Syria was not a nuclear site, why didn’t the Syrians respond more forcefully? Syria complained at the United Nations but did little to press the issue. And, if the site wasn’t a partially built reactor, what was it?

After extensive research in Syria and elsewhere, the best he can offer is

Whatever was under construction, with North Korean help, it apparently had little to do with agriculture—or with nuclear reactors—but much to do with Syria’s defense posture, and its military relationship with North Korea. And that, perhaps, was enough to silence the Syrian government after the September 6th bombing.

Hersh raises the parallel of Kumchang-Ri, a North Korean site that the US suspected of housing a nuclear reactor. After considerable controversy, the US pressed the issue and cut a deal to inspect the site. The result? A big, empty hole in the ground. Might it be possible that Israeli intelligence analysts were simply wrong about the Syrian site? Perhaps, but if they were wrong, why didn’t Syria say anything? The theme that constantly came up among Israelis was the re-establishment of their deterrent. Following the failures of the IDF against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hezbollah, Syria (and possibly Iran) seemed to think that they had finally achieved an advantage over Israeli military might. This raid did, if anything, point out that Israel can still pack a very powerful punch.

That notion was echoed by the ambassador of an Israeli ally who is posted in Tel Aviv. “The truth is not important,” the ambassador told me. “Israel was able to restore its credibility as a deterrent. That is the whole thing. No one will know what the real story is.”