More than two months after Israeli warplanes conducted a mysterious raid in northeast Syria, there is a growing consensus among U.S. government and independent analysts that the suspicious target was a nuclear facility.
But the evidence they are relying upon a series of satellite photos showing a building and an adjacent pumping station near the Euphrates River is anything but definitive, given how closely guarded U.S.-Israeli discussions have been. With the exception of several highly classified one-on-one briefings about the incident to a handful of congressional leaders, the Bush administration has kept mum.
Western analysts say a tall, boxy building on the site may have contained a nuclear reactor under construction similar to North Korean design, but the structure itself was razed after the Sept. 6 air raid. They say that the secret nuclear reactor may be several years old.
Whether or not the facility was nuclear, the episode and Israeli, Syrian, and U.S. silence over the issue raises even more questions as to the actual threat posed by the facility, the timing of the raid, and what the unilateral action portends for the nuclear ambitions of Israel’s regional neighbors.
A United Nations watchdog inquiry into the suspected Syrian covert nuclear site may end inconclusively without more information than satellite pictures that are already available. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has asked to see the intelligence that prompted the attack, and is also seeking information from Damascus about its alleged program.
Syria is required to inform the IAEA of any nuclear activities.
"At the IAEA, we have zero, and I stress ‘zero,’ information on the attack," IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei told the French newspaper Le Monde last week. "Frankly, I venture to hope that before people decide to bombard and use force, they will come and see us to convey their concerns. We would have gone to there to check."
The air strike unequivocally shows that the U.S. and Israel have decided to circumvent the UN’s monitoring of nuclear-proliferation situations in the Middle East, according to analysts.
"The Bush administration’s decision NOT to share its intelligence on the Syrian site with the IAEA, and thereby encourage and support the international agency’s aggressive inspection and evaluation of this alleged threat to peace, was another demonstration of the contempt in which the present U.S. administration holds the UN organization," wrote former CIA analyst Ray Close, in an e-mail to IPS.
"It suggests, in effect, that the United States intends to manage the international nuclear proliferation issue all by itself, independent of the rest of the international community except for deputizing Israel to be the nuclear policeman of the Middle East," he wrote in an e-mail to IPS.
Close also told IPS that the U.S.’ decision not to publicize the intelligence that presumably justified the Israeli attack suggests that Washington did not find the Israeli evidence altogether persuasive. Another photo, taken Sept. 13, 2003, by a U.S. commercial satellite, suggests that U.S. officials may have known about the facility long before the Israeli mission but did not consider it an immediate threat. During that time, the White House officials were sounding the alarm on the reconstitution of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program but, ironically, never discussed the presumed effort in neighboring Syria.
The White House’s complicity in Israel’s action also points to the rift within the administration, between right-leaning hawks such as former U.S. ambassador John Bolton and the pragmatism favored by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Bolton’s role cannot be overstated.
Bolton, now a fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, repeatedly clashed with the intelligence community over Syria’s intentions when he was undersecretary for arms control. In the summer of 2003, Bolton’s testimony on Capitol Hill was delayed because some intelligence officers felt that Bolton overstated the Syrian threat. As former CIA officer Philip Girardi wrote in the pages of the American Conservative, "At one point, Bolton was forced to strike from a speech language suggesting that Syria had a nuclear program."
Girardi continued: "On another occasion, Bolton’s judgments on Syria were challenged by Robert Hutchings, director of the National Intelligence Council, who charged that Bolton ‘took isolated facts and made much more of them cherry picking to present the starkest possible case."
Fast forward to 2007. Writing in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal more than a week before the Israeli strike, Bolton asserted, "We know that both Iran and Syria have long cooperated with North Korea on ballistic missile programs, and the prospect of cooperation on nuclear matters is not far-fetched."
"Whether and to what extent Iran, Syria, or other might be ‘safe havens’ for North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, or may have already benefited from it, must be made clear," he wrote.
The focus on North Korea comes as the U.S. prepares to implement a deal to end the country’s nuclear weapons program, a diplomatic approach that has drawn the ire of policy hawks like Bolton.
"Bolton represents the crowd that is very distressed that the U.S. has declared defeat in North Korea by trusting the North Koreans. They would like to scuttle that agreement," wrote Syria expert Josh Landis on his widely read blog, Syria Comment.
At the Korea Economic Institute Forum last week, executive director of the Arms Control Association Daryl G. Kimball said, "If Syria was indeed building a reactor and if North Korea was involved, there are other steps the United States could and should take to hold the DPRK accountable and ensure that Pyongyang provides no further nuclear assistance to other states without derailing the prospects of verifiably dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program and risking the possibility of further North Korean proliferation transgressions."
Israel’s actions also came as Secretary of State Rice shuttled about the Middle East in preparation for substantive peace negotiations between Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, presumably the first time "final status" issues would be discussed between the two sides in seven years. It remains to be seen what impact Israel’s foray will have on the peace process.
"By its attack on Syria, the Israeli leadership has demonstrated that it attaches a higher priority to restoring the credibility of its military dominance over its neighbors than it does to supporting American diplomatic efforts to advance the peace process on which Israel’s real security ultimately depends," Close told IPS.